Matthau: no slouch at movie stardom

Appreciation: Walter Matthau fit no one's definition of movie star, but audiences loved him.

July 08, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

His voice was a foghorn, he walked with the kind of slouch your mother always warned you about, his face looked like it never quite woke up. His picture deserved to be in the dictionary, right next to the word "rumpled."

His perennial co-star, Jack Lemmon, once said of Walter Matthau, "He walks like a child's windup toy."

Matthau, who died of heart failure last Saturday at age 79, fit no one's description of a movie star, but he was one. Not only that, he was one of those movie stars whose name always seems to have the word "beloved" somewhere nearby. For some 35 years, he made a career of being irascible, ornery, cantankerous, bellicose, unkempt, incorrigible ... and just downright adorable.

Today on TCM, four movies that capture Matthau's screen personae - as two of them demonstrate, he didn't always play a schlub and could be downright threatening when necessary - will air as a tribute to the actor that director Billy Wilder said "was good in everything he did."

"I don't look like an actor," Matthau once said. "I could be anyone from toilet attendant to a business executive. Most people look at me on the street and say, `Who the hell is that guy? Was I in the Army with him?'"

But audiences loved him. Whether he was playing archetypal slob Oscar Madison in "The Odd Couple," grumpy old man Max Goldman in "Grumpy Old Men" or Albert Einstein in "I.Q.," he somehow managed to make even the most irritating character traits ingratiating.

Like any good actor, of course, Matthau - who was born Walter Matuschanskayasky in 1920 to Russian-Jewish immigrants scraping out a living in New York City - could play a range of characters. After studying in the dramatic workshop at New York's New School (alongside fellow students Harry Guardino, Rod Steiger and Tony Curtis), he made his Broadway debut at 28, playing an 83-year-old English bishop in "Anne of a Thousand Days." In his early films, Matthau was usually cast as the heavy; he was the bad-guy counterpoint to Elvis Presley in "King Creole" and a CIA operative opposite Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in "Charade."

TCM's tribute opens with Matthau's film debut, as the villain tormenting backwoodsman Burt Lancaster in 1955's "The Kentuckian" (11 a.m.-12:45 a.m.).

Next up is the film that won Matthau an Oscar as the Best Supporting Actor of 1966. In "The Fortune Cookie" 12:45 p.m.-3 p.m.), Matthau is Willie Gingrich, a shyster attorney who sees the chance of a lifetime when his cameraman brother-in-law Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is slightly injured while shooting a Cleveland Browns football game. Willie convinces Harry to fake a more serious injury, and together they sue the Browns, CBS and Municipal Stadium for a million bucks. This dark little morality tale, directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, marked Matthau's first film alongside Lemmon. The duo would go on to collaborate on 10 more films - including one that was possibly the biggest in both their careers.

That would be "The Odd Couple" (3 p.m.-5 p.m.). Neil Simon reportedly wrote the part of slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison with Matthau in mind, and the actor had already played the part on Broadway. The movie version's release in 1968 was a huge success and made both Matthau's and Lemmon's careers. Even Jack Klugman, who proved himself a masterful Oscar when "The Odd Couple" was turned into a television series in 1970, always insisted he was just filling Matthau's shoes.

But such success proved a two-edged sword to Matthau, who bristled at his reputation as exclusively a comic actor. "When people come up to me and say, `Aren't you that comedian who's in the movies?' I want to throw up," he once said. "I throw up a lot."

For a look at why Matthau may have felt frustrated, view his strong, decidedly unfunny performance as Professor Groeteschelein "Fail-Safe" (5 p.m.-7 p.m.). Groeteschele is a Kissinger-like academic forced to realize there's a difference between theorizing about nuclear annihilation and the real thing.

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