Walter Matthau was an American actor who was well-known his performances in theatre, feature films and television. His acting prowess earned him several prestigious awards including the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, BAFTA Award and the Tony Award. He was interested in acting from a very early age and began appearing in stage shows. During the World War II he served the U.S. Army Air Forces, after which he pursued a course in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School. He then took up a career in acting beginning with theatre and later progressing to feature films and television. He was known by his gruff demeanor, sharp timing and deep voice. In his career that spanned across five decades he got the opportunity to essay several memorable characters in lead as well as in supporting cast. His association with actor Jack Lemmon earned much attention and together they collaborated for over ten movies. Despite recurring health ailments from the 1970s, he managed to star in films that were both critically and commercially successful.
Childhood & Early Life
Walter Matthau was born Walter John Matthow on 1 October 1920, in New York, to Milton Matthow, an electrician, and Rose (née Berolsky). He had an elder brother named Henry.
He had been a part of a camp - the Tranquility Camp, where he initially showcased his acting skills in shows that were staged by the camp on Saturdays. Later, he also got the opportunity to attend the Surprise Lake Camp. *When he was 11 years old, he worked part time as a cashier in the Yiddish Theater District. He completed his school education from the Seward Park High School in New York.
Continue Reading Below
You May Like
After graduating from school, Walter Matthau pursued various government jobs, such as, gymnasium instructor for the Works Progress Administration, forest ranger in Montana and a boxing coach for policemen, for short periods of time. He later enrolled in the US Army and during World War II he served the U.S Army Air Forces as radio cryptographer and radioman gunner with the Eighth Air Force in Britain. He progressed to the rank of staff sergeant and earned six battle stars. *After his discharge from military service, he attended the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop. He began giving professional performances in theatre in 1946 and two years later he received his first Broadway role in ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’.
In the following years he appeared on stage as part of the plays like ‘The Liar’ (1950), ‘Twilight Walk’ (1951), ‘One Bright Day’ (1952) ‘In Any Language’ (1952), ‘The Grey-Eyed People’ (1953) and ‘The Burning Glass’ (1953). In 1952, he also made an appearance in the pilot of the television sitcom ‘Mister Peepers’. *In 1955, he achieved the lead role status in the Broadway comedy ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’. He made his feature film debut the same year with a negative role in ‘The Kentuckian’. *In 1957, he appeared in the film ‘A Face in the Crowd’ that was based on a short story ‘Our Arkansas Traveler’. *In 1958, he played the role of a villain in Elvis Presley starrer ‘King Creole’. The same year he acted in the movies ‘Voice in the Mirror’, ‘Ride a Crooked Trail’ and ‘Onionhead’.
He directed and acted in the melodrama ‘Gangster story’ in 1959. This was his only directorial venture. During this time he continued with his performances in theatre. The major plays in which he performed during this period include: ‘Once More, With Feeling!’ (1958), ‘A Shot in the Dark’ (1961), and ‘The Odd Couple’. *During the 1960s he acted in several genres like the drama ‘Fail Safe’ (1964), comedy ‘Goodbye Charlie’ (1964) and thriller ‘Mirage’ (1965). During this time he also appeared in several television series like ‘Tallahassee 7000’ (1961), ‘Route 66’ (1961) and ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. *He played a significant role in the 1966 film ‘The Fortune Cookie’. The film was the first of his collaborations with actor Jack Lemmon. including the film adaptation of ‘The Odd Couple' (1968), the television revival of ‘Juno and the Peacock’, ‘Kotch’(1971), ‘JFK’ (1991) and the ‘Grumpy Old Men’ series of the 1990s among others.
Several popular Broadway acts were adapted to films with him as the leading actor. These included: ‘Cactus Flower’ (1969), ‘Hello, Dolly!’ (1969), ‘Plaza Suite’ (1971), ‘California Suite’ (1978) and ‘I Ought to Be in Pictures’ (1982). *During the mid-1970s, he got the opportunity to act in several thriller and action oriented films like ‘The Laughing Policeman’ (1973), ‘Charley Varrick’ (1973) and ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ (1974). *He also acted in the popular comedy drama films of the time like ‘Pete 'n' Tillie’ (1972), ‘The Front Page’ (1974), ‘The Sunshine Boys’ (1975) and ‘The Bad News Bears’ (1976). *In 1994, he played Albert Einstein in the romantic comedy film ‘I.Q’. Other movies that he was a part of during the 1990s include ‘Dennis the Menace’ (1993),’The Grass Harp’ (1995), ‘Out to Sea’ (1997) and ‘The Odd Couple II’ (1998). His last feature film was ‘Hanging Up’ (2000).
During his career, he had also been part of documentaries like ‘The Gentleman Tramp’ (1975), ‘Beyond 'JFK': The Question of Conspiracy’ (1992) and ‘The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg’ (1998).
Among the best performances of Walter Matthau were award winning plays like ‘A Shot in the Dark’ (1961) and ‘The Odd Couple’ (1965), and feature films, ‘The Fortune Cookie’ (1966), ‘Pete 'n' Tillie’ (1972), ‘Charley Varrick’ (1973) and ‘The Sunshine Boys’ (1975) among many others.
Awards and Achievements
He was the recipient of the 1962 Tony Award for Best Actor Featured in a Play for his performance in ‘A Shot in the Dark’.
In 1965, he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for ‘The Odd Couple’.
He was awarded the 1966 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for ‘The Fortune Cookie’.
In 1973, he received the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for ‘Charley Varrick’ and ‘Pete 'n' Tillie’.
He was the recipient of the 1975 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for ‘The Sunshine Boys’.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1948, he married Grace Geraldine Johnson and the couple had two children named Jenny and David. However, the couple divorced in 1958. Jenny grew up to become the president of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City and David became a radio news reporter.
He married Carol Marcus in 1959 and they had a son named Charlie Matthau who grew up to pursue television direction and acting.
Walter Matthau was known to be a heavy drinker and smoker. He suffered a heart attack in 1966; ten years after which he underwent a heart bypass surgery.
In 1993 while filming in cold conditions of Minnesota he had to be hospitalized for double pneumonia. Two years later, in 1995, he had a surgery to remove a benign colon tumor. He was once again affected by pneumonia in 1999.
He suffered from atherosclerotic heart disease and died on 1 July 2000, due to heart attack, at the age of 79.