Turner Classic Movies
Matthau, Walter
Written by Diana Saenger   



Date of Birth: October 1, 1920

Place of Birth: New York City, NY

Date of Death: July 1, 2000

Place of Death: Santa Monica, California

Cause of Death: heart attack

Walter Matthau was an incredible actor who offered audiences an immense talent and incredible laughs. He loved to in front of the camera and it always seemed acting was his cereal for breakfast and his midnight snack.

He was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants and grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. He had an absent father and his mother, Rose, worked in a sweatshop. Matthau earned money selling soft drinks and playing bit parts at a Yiddish theater at age 11. He was paid 50 cents for each of his occasional onstage appearances. "I never thought anyone would pay me to act," he once said.

At 18 he auditioned for the National Youth Administration with a recital of "Casey at the Bat," hoping to earn the $1 a day salary. The teacher told him he had no talent, so he didn't win. "But the experience was helpful," Matthau said.

He worked as a gym instructor, a boxing coach and policemen - plenty of fodder for a movie career - and served in the Army Corp in World War II as a radio cryptographer. Matthau was a sergeant under Jimmy Stewart.

In 1948 Matthau became the understudy for seven parts in Anne of the Thousand Days. By the early 50s he worked mostly in television, and it was no secret he had a gambling problem. He can recall losing $100,000 in a single day.

Also in 1948 Matthau married Grace Geraldine Johnson, and the couple had two children, Jenny and David. He married his second wife, Carol Marcus in 1959, and they had a son, Charles, in 1962.

Lemmon & Matthau in The Fortune Cookie United Artists
Good fortune did smile down on Matthau in his career. We went on to make many films - The Fortune Cookie (1966) and The Odd Couple (1968) among those most notable and ones that added his life-long onscreen sparring partner, Jack Lemmon.


Matthau made hundreds of stage performances and over 70 films -- Dennis the Menace (1993), I'm Not Rappaport (1996) but one of the most enjoyable partnerships, Matthau said, was working with his son Charlie, who directed him in The Grass Harp. "I enjoyed working with my son very much. He's a beautiful man who knows how to talk to actors."

In a 1977 interview with Matthau for Out To Sea, I discovered that he may have been a superb thespian, but fell short on being an easy interview. Like Robin Williams, he was a load of fun, but his answers came in one-liners and he often threw in red herrings.

Matthau, a heavy smoker, was plagued with health problems most of his later years.

Sadly Lemmon and Matthau are both gone now as less than one year after Matthau died, so did Jack Lemmon. But their films live on forever, offering fans a million more laughs.

A Matthau Famous Quote: "I was lucky where we lived, lucky I didn't get killed in the war, and lucky I got the 2,000 breaks I needed because one big break isn't enough for show biz."

Top photo: Matthau in The Old Couple Paramount Pictures


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