Walter Matthau passed on July 1, 2000, after a heart attack in Santa Monica at the age of 79. Walter’s son Charlie hosted a memorial service which featured an amazing career montage done by Chuck Workman, of Academy Award fame.
Diane Keaton directed Walter in his last film and she spoke at length of the Walter Matthau she knew. She said, “his face was the best face I ever laid eyes on.” Talk-show host Larry King spoke of his deep admiration for Walter the actor.
Neil Simon, who gave voice to some of the most beloved of Walter’s characters, remembered “at the City Center in New York at a revival of ‘Guys and Dolls’ I saw a tall, gangly man playing Nathan Detroit and it was love at first sight. I wanted to ask Walter to marry me. I wanted to write for him for the rest of my life.”
Jack Lemmon, Walter’s best friend and acting soul mate told a few stories, some well-known and some less, before succumbing to his emotions.
Walter’s son Charlie Matthau closed the ceremony with humor, grace and warmth. His beautiful eulogy was published in “Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of our Time,” included with others by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro, Orson Wells, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Madonna.
After the service, guests dined on snacks that included Nathan’s Famous kosher hot-dogs one of Matthau’s favorites. Dessert included fortune cookies, in a nod to Walter’s Academy Award-winning performance in “The Fortune Cookie”. The “fortunes” in the cookies were slips of paper printed with the name of a movie, his part, and a memorable line of dialog.
There is the matter of Matthau’s surname. The most reputable encyclopedias list it as Matuschanskayasky; it occassionally has been spelled Matasschanskayasky. All are bogus. Walter had a legendary penchant for fabricating his past. When he was born, his surname was Matthow; after World War II, while an acting student in New York at the New School for Social Research, he altered it to Matthau.
What is indisputable is that the actor was born in New York City on October 1, 1920. “I was very young when I was born, ” he remarked. Also unquestionable is the Lower East Side community in which he came of age, and the cruel fact that his childhood was, as Matthau admitted, “a nightmare, a dreadful, horrible, stinking nightmare.”
By the time Walter was born, more than a half million poverty-stricken Eastern European Jews had settled on the Lower East Side of New York, a four-square-mile urban enclave where Walter lived for the first twenty years of his life.
His father Melas, who called himself Milton in his adopted country, was most likely from Kiev, Ukraine, where he was a peddler.
Walter’s mother, born Rose Berolsky on a farm in Lithuania, gave birth to her first son Henry in 1918. When Walter was three, Milton Matthow abandoned his wife and sons.
Rose Matthow placed her sons in the Daughters of Israel day nursery on East Fifth Street for one dollar per week while she went off to labor in sweatshops, sewing ladies’ rayon underwear.
The Matthows resided in a host of tenements, on a host of Lower East Side streets as they tried to stay one-step ahead of angry landlords.
The poverty in which the Matthows lived was exacerbated by the coming of the Great Depression. He attended Public School 25, followed by Junior High School 64. Like many youngsters coming of age in New York, he played stickball and handball and developed a love for sports.
At the time, Walter’s neighborhood’s now-aging immigrants and their coming-of-age offspring constituted a ready-made audience for old country entertainment. Thus, Yiddish stage productions flourished on the Lower East Side, with Second Avenue famed as the Yiddish Great White Way. Matthau often claimed that he began hawking candy, soda, and ice cream in the Yiddish theaters.
The richness of the theater and the talents of the actors impressed the youngster. “I got to see many of the leading Yiddish actors, like Julius Nathanson, Herman Yablokoff, and Michael Rosenberg. I watched the way they worked. The idea of becoming an actor was lurking somewhere in my head.” Eventually, he began playing bit parts on stage, his most notable appearance was in a three-and-a-half-hour-long musical comedy called ‘The Dish-washer’ (Der Dishvasher), which opened at the Second Avenue Theatre on December 1, 1936.
Upon graduation from high school, Matthau began picking up odd jobs. He was a floor washer in a Lower Manhattan factory, a file clerk, a boxing coach and a gym instructor. Pearl Harbor attacked on December 7, 1941. In mid-April 1942, Matthau enlisted in the United States Air Corps.
When Matthau returned from the war, he used his GI Bill money to register at the New School for Social Researchs Dramatic Workshop. I could not have afforded to go to drama school without the GI Bill. Not in a million years, he noted.
A generation of actors and playwrights studied at the New School. Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams predated Walter. Among those he did study with included Rod Steiger, Harry Belafonte, Elaine Stritch, Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur, and Gene Saks.
It was around this time that Matthau changed the spelling of his name. He thought Matthau was more euphonious. H-o-w was too Jewish, too low class. He was pounding the pavement in search of work and was involved in dozens of productions through the New School before he began getting bigger roles.
His Broadway debut was as a candle bearer in the coronation scene in Maxwell Andersons Anne of the Thousand Days, which opened at the Shubert Theatre on December 8, 1948. Between 1950 and 1954 I did twelve plays on Broadway, Matthau recalled. I liked them all. And Im happy they all were flops, because I was able to go from one to the other and learn so much playing such different roles.
On March 10, 1965, Walter Matthau was not considered a genius comic or otherwise. He was a forty-four-year-old character actor who had enjoyed a degree of success on the stage, screen, and television. All that changed on March 10. That night at the Plymouth Theatre, The Odd Couple, the now-legendary Neil Simon comedy, bowed on Broadway and Walter Matthau was on his way to superstardom.
From here, it was on to Hollywood and the silver screen. Matthau would return to the stage once more, in 1974 for a production of Juno and the Paycock, co-starring with his good friends Jack Lemmon and Maureen Stapleton.
Though Walter and Carol Grace grew up on the same island, their backgrounds were at once alike, and as different as the Russian Tea Room and Katzs Deli. Her early years were marked by deprivation; her single mother Rosheen toiled in a hat factory and placed Carol and her younger sister by another father in a series of foster homes.
Carol was eight years old when Rosheen married Charles Marcus, a vice president of Bendix Aviation and consultant to Howard Hughes. It seemed that, on Friday, Carol was residing in an anonymous foster home, and by the following Monday was thrust into a more permanent surrounding: an eighteen-room duplex on the tony part of Fifth Avenue.
At fifteen, Carol graduated from Dalton and debuted in high society in 1941. She was also gaining recognition in her first stage appearance in William Saroyans play Jim Dandy. Carol endured two complex and painful marriages and divorces with Saroyan, with whom she had two children, Aram and Lucy.
In 1952, as he was to begin work on a new play, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Walter was married and the father of two young children, David and Jenny. Walters co-star was Jayne Mansfield and Carol was Mansfields understudy. Carol was more the party type preferring to spend evenings out among the multitudes, whereas Walter was content to be by himself, reading or listening to classical music, or among a small group of close pals.
Even so, Carol and Walter found that they were falling love. Walter said, And, yes, from the moment I started seeing her, I started to live. In fact, I was taken out of an abyss of primordial slime and transported on a carpet of beauty, intelligence, and spiritual generosity. And Carol and I went to the ends of the universe.
Six months later Walter was divorced and on August 21, 1959, Carol officially became Carol Matthau. I think the reason I married Carol was because she was just as crazy as I was. They remained married for 41 years.
As Matthau established himself on Broadway, he supplemented his income by regularly appearing on television. As he explained, when a New York stage actor was between gigs during the early 1950s, you either worked as a sporting good salesman at Macys, or you started getting work in the television field.
This was TVs pioneering era. Throughout the 1950s, Matthau appeared on all the important live television series, including Studio One, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Omnibus, Goodyear Theatre, and Robert Montgomery Presents.
Even after establishing himself on Broadway and on screen, Matthau kept appearing on TV series, only stopping in 1965, when The Odd Couple on stage and The Fortune Cookie on screen made him a star and he no longer had to supplement his income. That year, a profile noted that he had 158 TV shows to his credit.
Over the next 35 years, Walter appeared in television movies and specials, as a frequent guest on popular talk shows, and as both a presenter and host of the Academy Awards.
The Odd Couple finally made Matthau a Broadway star, though he had not yet found comparable success on the big screen. A big movie role still eluded him: a showcase role that would win him above-the-title billing. Fortunately for Walter, that opportunity came immediately, and he would play a screen role that blasted him into movie stardom, allowing him to become, in his own words, a big time schmuck superstar.
The film was a dark comedy, The Fortune Cookie (1965). The director was the legendary Billy Wilder, whose credits included Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, two classic comedies headlining Jack Lemmon, Matthaus The Fortune Cookie co-star and lifelong friend-to-be. For his performance as William H. Whiplash Willie Gingrich, Matthau won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The Lower East Side streetboy was now an Oscar-winner.
For the remainder of his life and career Walter rubbed shoulders with celebrated artists, sports figures, and other celebrities. He became an international superstar.
Not only did The Fortune Cookie win Matthau movie-star status, but it is just as memorable for pairing him with Jack Lemmon. They would go on to be one of cinemas great comedy teams.
In Lemmon, Walter found someone with whom he could share the fantasy world created in the script. These two were just a little bit offbeat, a little zany. Their personalities complemented each other. Both could show warmth and vulnerability, as well as play broad physical comedy.
Following The Fortune Cookie, they were cast again in the screen version of The Odd Couple. It was hailed by critics and became an instant hit. Over the course of the next three-plus decades, Matthau and Lemmon appeared together in ten films: The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple, The Front Page, Buddy, Buddy, JFK, Grumpy Old Men, The Grass Harp, Grumpier Old Men, Out to Sea, and The Odd Couple II. Lemmon directed Matthau once, in Kotch, for which Walter was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. They appeared on stage together once, in 1974, in Sean O'Caseyss "Juno and the Paycock."
Off-camera they became and remained the greatest of friends, buddies for life. They shared the same values and politics: both were liberal Democrats. Plus, Jack's wife, Felicia Farr, and Walter's wife, Carol Grace, became close friends.
In 1965, with their two-year-old son Charlie Matthau in tow, Walter and Carol moved West to Hollywood and settled in the Pacific Palisades. Walter's son Charlie was his pride and joy and his very best friend in life. The two became inseparable and Charlie often joined Walter on set during the making of films, sometimes appearing in them, as he did in Charley Varrick, The Bad News Bears, and House Calls. In 1995, Charlie directed his father in The Grass Harp.
Charlie grew up and liked all the same things as Walter. They shared the same interests. They liked the same music, betting on sports, going to the track, and going to Dodgers and Lakers games. They loved to watch the news and talk about politics. Every night they played Jeopardy.
In 1990, Walter asked Charlie to become his manager. Over the next few years, Walters earnings quintupled and the newly formed Matthau Company, Inc. had a helping hand in putting together several films which included Dennis the Menace, Grumpy Old Men, and The Grass Harp.
Walter was a great dog lover. He and his trusty companion were a welcome and frequent sight to neighbors in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood where Walter and Puff n Stuff would take their daily walks. Walter often carried handwritten lines of Shakespeare in his sweatshirts. The scraps of paper would be found weeks later in the laundry.
Throughout his life, Walter had a love for classical music and opera. Mozart became his favorite composer; when he was a poor youngster as well as an international celebrity, he would completely lose himself in a Mozart symphony.
He sprinkled references to Mozart in his work, adlibbing the line, My dear, you are exquisite, like the fragile beauty of an early Mozart quartet in the film Goodbye Charlie. In I Ought to be in Pictures he wore his own personal Mozart cap as part of his wardrobe. In House Calls he attempts to mimic Cherubinos song from Act II of Nozze di Figaro. In later years, Walter relished his opportunity to guest-conduct the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra.
One aspect of Walter Matthaus make-up that affected every phase of his life was his addiction to gambling. It was a terrible poison, the gambling, his mother Rose Matthow declared. He had that fat friend of his, who got him into it. Her son corrected her. Mother, I was gambling when I was six years old, only you didn't know about it. As a little boy he had organized Bankers and Brokers card games on tenement rooftops.
According to his own account, he began frequenting racetracks on New Years Day, 1950. He was in Miami, in the company of his friend, director Martin Ritt. I like this horse, Ritt exclaimed. He bet $500. Matthau bet $100. The horse lost. With that stunning success, Walter cracked, I was hooked.
He loved betting on sports with bookmakers. But he would not gamble merely on horseraces and ballgames. Recalled Bob Mills, with whom he played handball in the 1950s, If we had a couple of cockroaches, he'd bet on which one would beat the other one to the hole. Publicist Murray Weisman reported, "They tell the story that he once placed a sizable bet on which of two flies would leave a wall first." Talk-show host Larry King has said, "Once we were at the same black-tie event in Beverly Hills. We were coming out at the same time, and he said, Ill bet you $20 whose limo comes first."
It's impossible to estimate Matthau's lifetime gambling losses. One rather conservative estimate is that he dropped upwards of $5 million. Late in life, he freely admitted to film-critic Roger Ebert, I've made $50 million over the years as a movie star, if you'll pardon the expression, and I've given most of it to the bookies.
In the early 1980s, Walter appeared on The Dick Cavett Show to promote Little Miss Marker.
Reflections on the Silver Screen featured 50 in depth conversations with screen legends ranging from Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn to Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and Walter Matthau. Commissioned by the Library of Congress, it has been termed “the definitive archive on American film in the 20th Century.”
Dozens of former friends, colleagues, and admirers recount their memories in this special presentation done by the Fox Movie Channel.
by Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune
There are many things I loved about Walter Matthau as an actor. But one of the things I loved most was how damned ordinary he could look. It was his ace in the hole. In a town filled with too many male swans and peacocks, Matthau was a proud and unregenerate crow. He was a super crow; secure in his homeliness, confident in his earthy anti-glamour, mostly unconcerned with fine feathers and capable of stealing the screen (and the entire movie) from any peacock, any time.
Of course, in movies, ordinary is always relative. Matthau, who died last week at 79, was not someone who could ever have faded into the woodwork. He was, after all, a movie star to the end, an Oscar-winner, a guy who never stopped working which means audiences never got tired of looking at him. In person, he could be quite imposing: He was a rangy, 6-foot-3-inch ex-star high school athlete who won six battle stars as an Army Air Corps radioman/gunner in World War II and who acted from the age of 12. He had charisma to spare.
What he didnt have was conventional move star good looks and demeanor. Instead of a Greek profile, Matthau had a walrus puss with a battered nose and a semi-permanent smirk. Instead of a hard-body physique, he had a herky jerky, slope-shouldered slouching posture that suggested that his entire body was somehow moving in separate sections. Instead of a mellifluous, seductive baritone, he had a buzz-saw growl, alternately dour and whiny, that at times suggested a classic sarcastic New York City cop or cabbie, and at others suggested Bullwinkle the Moose after three martinis.
Matthau was no Tom Cruise. But then he didnt want to be. And Ill lay you 10 to 1 that, on his good days, Cruise would love to be a Walter Matthau. (Unfortunately, Matthau himself might have taken that bet. Gambling was his major vice, one that he once estimated lost him over five million dollars.) What Matthau was, instead, was this: a quintessential New York City guy with talents and smarts who could believably blend into almost any landscape. Compare him with Jack Lemmon>, his best friend and the other half of what may have been the best comedy team ever in American sound movies. They were great because theyre so different, so complementary. Where Lemmon looks and sounds like Boston prep school money, Matthau looked ethnic. He was the son of impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side and his real name, often misspelled, was Walter Matuschanskayasky.
He also looked like someone who had been around and who knew the score which he had and did. As an actor, he could do many things extremely well, stretching from bums to crooked lawyers, tough cops to effete snobs, bank robbers to U.S. presidential advisors, cranky vaudevillians to Albert Einstein. When Neil Simon handed him The Odd Couple and asked him to read the role of slob sportswriter Oscar Madison — the part Simon wrote for him and that, Matthau later admitted, was so fine a match for his personality and talent that it made him a star — he asked instead to play Felix Unger, obsessively fastidious photographer and Oscars emotional opposite. And he kept on asking to play Felix, suggesting well into the run that he and the stage Felix (Art Carney) should switch parts for a while.
The joke is that Matthau probably could have played Felix and been great. But he was the perfect Oscar. When you watch him in the 1968 movie of The Odd Couple — which is directed only adequately and visually drab there is still absolute magic in the way Matthau crawls into his character, suggesting the he is both the citys best sportswriter and its sloppiest housekeeper. And theres also magic in the way he reacts to Felixs nonstop neuroses or hurls Felixs linguini on the wall (Felix: Its not spaghetti, its linguini! Oscar: Now its garbage.), or hands out brown and green sandwiches at the poker table, explaining that the green sandwiches are either very new cheese or very old meat. Neil Simon wrote those lines, of course, and The Odd Couple remains the funniest he has written, but nobody could say them like Matthau and give you a believable, enjoyable, flawed and sympathetic human being in the bargain.
He was a man of many faces, all of them skeptical. He was also a master of biting realistic comedy- and an absolute master of both the slow burn and the lightning put-down. A Matthau-delivered crack was like a perfectly aimed howitzer blast, exploding all pretension. His ability to deflate the pompous or phony with a few well-chosen growls was uncanny. Thats why he was so great with the super-sensitive, sentimental Lemmon or in movies written by that king of sarcasm Billy Wilder. When Matthau fixed a co-star (preferably Lemmon) with that basilisk stare and let loose, there was no defense. (In real life as well. Once, at a screening of Lemmons 1976 flop Alex and the Gypsy, when Lemmon asked what he thought, his chum snarled back: Get out of it!)
Walter Matthau was one of the great wisecrackers in the history of movies. But he was more: an ordinary looking guy who could capture the essence of ordinary — and extraordinary humanity — and make us laugh at things that sometimes should have made us cry. Thats why he didnt need Tom Cruises looks, Harrison Fords stare, Brad Pitts smile or Arnold Schwarzeneggerss torso. He had something better: the ability to make us laugh, make us feel and cringe, make us believe. And thats why Walter Matthau, smirking and slouching and snarling from the Lower East Side to Beverly Hills, will always be in the pantheon of moviedom. Ill lay you 6 to 1.
“I always consult him on every script,” says the famous actor-comedian. “He’s my friend and I trust his judgement.”
By Jane Ardmore
Charlie is 16 and he’s just starting his senior year in high school. He writes for the school paper, acts in school plays and struggles to stay at the top of his class in math and Latin. An ordinary kid. Sort of.
Sandwiched between the hours he spends on homework and extra-curricular activities, Charlie works in the Industry, the movie industry, that is. Like this summer, he was Associate Producer on Little Miss Marker, his opinion was sought on decisions involving casting and plot structure. But most of his time was spent with Walter Matthau on that comedy master’s interpretation of the famous Damon Runyon character, Sorrowful Jones.
“Nothing new,” says Matthau. “I always consult Charlie on every character I play. I read the whole script aloud to him and he tells me whether to do it. Take The Sunshine Boys for example. I didn’t want to do it. I thought it was a good script, but very depressing. When I read it to Charlie, he laughed and lot and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do that. That’s a very funny script, and you do it so well!’ So of course I did it because Charlie is a friend whose judgment I trust.”
Charlie is also Matthau’s son. The two are a familiar sight around Hollywood; the tall, dark-haired man and the thin, dark-haired kid, both wearing their favorite baseball caps (Charlie is partial to his Dodger blue, Walter prefers his Del Mar green). “I never had a best friend like Charlie. He goes any place I want to go,” says Walter. “To baseball games… to the races… to concerts… the theater… on location… to films.”
We’re sitting in Matthau’s office at Universal Studios. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, “but I had a race with a guy on the freeway. I beat him the first part of it, and then I got into this hassle with the cop on the lot who thought he’d read a story that I’d ‘given up’ on the Dodgers. I never give up on the Dodgers.” Off comes the familiar cap: “I wear it to keep the wind from blowing my hair askew,” he quips as he stalks the well-appointed office (“much too nice for us; they’ll probably throw us out momentarily”) trying to find his comb and brush. Any prowlers around? The Marx Brothers been here? Jane, did you swipe ‘em?”
Personal secretary Grace McColum says she thinks she saw them in the kitchen.
“My brush? Whatever you do today, Grace, don’t make me an egg salad sandwich!”
Grace finally retrieves the comb and brush from the suite’s bathroom and brings them in, beaming. She obviously adores Matthau and confides. “He’s like no one else in the business. Always real. Always warm, understanding, funny, and real.”
Which may explain Matthau’s attitude toward directing. “I’ve done it – in 1958 – a piece called Gangster Story, but I didn’t like. I don’t like all the power that comes with directing. I’m never quite sure of myself when I’m trying to create a character or interpret a piece, and the director must be sure of himself – or make his actors believe he is.
“I directed Charlie once. He’s had parts in five or six of my pictures – New Leaf, Charley Varrick, Kotch, Plaza Suite and House Calls, – and he played young Scrooge on the Young Bob Cratchit Show on television. Most of these were just background parts, but the best so far was in House Calls when he was Glenda Jackson’s son. Charlie’s first speaking part was on Charley Varrick – he had seven or eight lines. The director [Don] Siegel, pretended to have a long-distance call and left the set, letting me direct Charlie in his scene. I was very hard on Charlie. After my hollering for the sixth time, “Let’s take that again,” Charlie said, ‘When is the real director coming back?’ But it was a great moment for me. I wasn’t going to just say, ‘Cut and print.’ I didn’t want to let go of that moment; directing my son in his first movie scene.”
Ask Charlie about that experience and he reveals, “It was awful. My dad was very forceful. I love doing everything else with Papa, but I wouldn’t want him to direct me in a picture. I’m close to him. There has to be a little distance between actor and director. But in every other situation… he and my mom are both knowledgeable, terrific people, and we have an excellent relationship that I treasure very much. That relationship had a major influence on my life. Until this last year, when the pressure got pretty heavy at school, I used to go along with my parents on every location. No wonder I’m hooked on the business – it’s been part of my education.”
Did Matthau assume that his son would follow in his footsteps? “Oh, I never even thought about that,” he says. “I just liked having him around. I don’t care what he does career-wise. He can become a cat burglar if he wants to . He’s such a nice person, so delightful and interesting and funny. I’m going to try to talk him into going to Harvard. A Harvard graduate is always impressive. Harvard Law.”
Charlie’s answer to that: “Look, I can always take law. That’s graduate work, anyhow. Dad has a kind of old-fashioned concept about education. Why shouldn’t I study something I’m interested in, and probably going to be involved with and fascinated by for the rest of my life? Since my interests are acting and directing, I should apply to USC. They have the finest theater arts department in the country.”
Besides, in between times, there will always be jobs like the one he’s involved with right now – working for David Susskind as production assistant on Loving Couples, a job with which Walter has nothing to do. As we chat, he picks up the phone and gives Charlie a ring to see “how things are going.” You can hear Charlie’s deep voice as he roars “New Leaf Productions” into the telephone. His dad laughs. “That was a picture I did with Elaine May about eight years ago,” he whispers to me. Then into the phone.
“Charlie, I’m going to be talking to Jennings Lang about your billing as associate producer (on Little Miss Marker). Now, if he does allow you billing… you what? You want your name in a box? He may not even give you billing. You know how Jennings is, he’s a very nasty, mean, wonderful fellow – it depends on what he’s had for breakfast, and whether it has agreed with him.” Aside to me, “Charlie says we should call Lang’s secretary for a digestive status report.”
“Listen, Charlie, you want your billing to be Charles Matthau or Charlie? Oh you think Charlie is a little demeaning? How about Charles M. Matthau or Charles Marcus Mattahu. Okay, just Charles Matthau. Yeah, much less pretentious. It’s like that guy who has his first initial and then his second name, and then his last name, like Y. Howard Friedman or Y. Charles Smearfarp; you know, the kind of guy they say, ‘So she married a guy who even questions his first name.’ You want to be Irving R. Levine? Okay. Well, you can do the 7 o’clock news. See you later, Buddy… Bye-bye.”
Regina Gross, who first worked with Matthau as a public relations liaison on Guide for the Married Man and later in the same capacity on Sunshine Boys, has traveled with the Matthau family on location and notes a great difference in Walter over the years. “He was always a very good actor, but when I first knew him, he hadn’t achieved major stardom yet, and he was not as sanguine or as settled into his life as he is now. Under the humor, there is a very serious man who adores his wife Caorl… a fragile, Dresden beauty, but really a very strong lady. Charlie is the light of their lives. He and Walter are like two guys together… I think Walter has to be the greatest father I’ve ever known.”
At a time when the generation gap is widening in a town where top stars sandwich parent-child relationships between the rigors of production and around-the-world location trips, how has Walter Matthau achieved such total communication with his kid?
“I don’t think most people get this lucky in one lifetime,” he says simply. “Most adults cannot accommodate the intransigence of adolescence, so they are constantly at odds with their children. Most parents don’t have the time or energy for all it takes. But we’re lucky, Carol and I. We’re older, and we have had good experiences with our other children. You know, we have four kids besides Charlie – Carol had two and I had two – and they’ve all turned out okay. My son David is an actor, my daughter Jenny goes to school; Carol’s Lucy is an actress, and her son Aram SAroyan is a writer and has just written quite a good book called Genesis Angels. We had Charlie when we were a little more mature, when we didn’t have to worry so much about earning a living. Besides – Charlie was a great baby. You could take him any place, just stick him in a bag, and he’d go anywhere – grinning, laughing, talking, just marvelous. Our secret is luck.
“You have to have a spouse you’re crazy about,” Matthau adds. “Now you’re crazy about the spouse and you have this little kid, and the kid turns out exactly like the spouse, so you’re crazy about the kid from the start: and he’s even cuter because he’s smaller and helpless, and the whole thing just rolls into a marvelous life.”
Unlike many fathers who feel a little uncomfortable with newborns, Walter insists that Charlie has been his best friend since he was “about a half-hour old: I pinched him then and he laughed.” Carol claims the father-son love affair didn’t really start, though, until 24 hours later. Walter was in Paris then, finishing up Charade, and though Carol had wanted to stay with him, her doctor wanted her safe at home. Walter concurred: “Our kid can’t become President of the United States if he’s born in Paris,” he pointed out.
So Carol flew home to New York and Charlie was born December 10, 1962. Carol immediately cabled Walter: BOY ARRIVED TODAY. LOOKS JUST LIKE YOU. NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT. Twenty-four hours later, the new father was at New York Hospital falling in love with his baby.
“He looked exactly the way he does now,” Walter recalls, “He still looks like he jus got out of the egg. I helped take care of him from the first – we took him everywhere. I remember at Acapulco. He was about eight months old, and I was down there doing Ensign Pulver. Carol and I had a room on the sixth floor of the hotel, and we could always spot him in the crowd when we looked over the balcony. He was very white and very small and everyone else, including his nurse, was very large and very tan. The kid was always special.”
One of the first time I met Charlie was when I visited the Matthaus at their house in Pacific Palisades. Carol and I were sitting in the living room, when Charlie, then five, ran in from the pool,naked and dripping wet, and introduced himself as “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”
“And have you composed anything lately?” I asked.
“No, I’ve been swimming. But now I’m going upstairs to compose a sonata.”
“Well, say hello to your dad for me.”
“Okay, “ said Charlie. “Leopold?”
The conversation was not as surprising as it sounds. Walter loves classical music, and has inspired his son. Walter is convinced that a love of music is genetic, “And Charlie’s genes in the music department are inherited from his momma, since he’s now into Big Band music, although he is perfectly open to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.”
Also in the genes must be a love of acting. Charlie has played in school productions (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet; Lovberg in Hedda Gabler; Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire). But the role that his father enjoyed the most was Charlie as the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear, complete with English accent. It took Walter back to his own first days on Broadway.
You understand, Walter didn’t just grow up in New York’s Lower East side, sell ice cream and cold drinks at the Jewish Theater and then start acting. It wasn’t until he returned from a four year hitch in the Army and graduated from the Dramatic Workshop of the New School that he gave himself a chance at what he really wanted to do. “How many people, even if they can act, are smart enough to realize that they’re not going to make a living at it? I gave myself three months,” he remembers, “and I learned to do it myself. You don’t get an agent. You just look around while you’re still going to school, see what’s going on, and try out everywhere. You have to be very cocky and very arrogant and appear to be very humble. When I went for my first Broadway job, a part in the play Anne of a Thousand Days, I was 27. I was cocky and arrogant but I appeared to be very humble. They liked my humility and also my apparent confidence.”
Matthau was hired immediately as an understudy to Percy Waram, who played the aging Cardinal Wolsey. “And then, unfortunately, Waram had a heart attack six weeks after our opening, and I went on for him. Rex Harrison, who was playing Henry VIII and Joyce Redman, who was Anne Boleyn, were so nervous they couldn’t look at me. Rex Harrison was trembling. I probably was, too. But I did it – in my best aged English accent.”
After the performance, Rex Harrison called Matthau to his dressing room. “That accent of yours,” he said, “it’s really remarkable. Are you English?”
“No,” Matthau replied, “but I was born in London.”
“Aha, I can tell. And how long did you live there in London?”
“Six months,” Matthau lied.
“Hmm.” Rex hmmmed. “I guess you absorbed it through your genes.”
And now there is another Matthau who’s absorbed a lot of theater know-how through his genes. As they say, like father, like son.
The New York Times
March 11, 1965
The Odd Couple Review
The Plymouth Theater
I'm sorry the Moscow Art players have returned to Russia. I'd like them to have seen the first-act poker game in The Odd Couple.
I dont necessarily say theyd have learned anything from it. I just feel pretty sure theyd have liked it. It has so much interior truth. Director Mike Nichols has staged an absolute summer festival of warm beer, sprayed toward the ceiling like those terraced fountains municipal designers are so fond of, and I suppose we can credit author Neil Simon with providing the sandwiches. The sandwiches have been of whatever was left over in host Walter Matthaus long-defrosted refrigerator (its either very new cheese or very old meat Mr. Matthau volunteers as he offers his cronies a choice between brown sandwiches and green) and the members of the party are happy enough to munch them as they gripe, growl, snarl, and roar over their hands, their wives, their lives, and the high cost of losing.
This is where the art comes in. Instead of isolating each one of Mr. Simons dozens of laugh-lines and milling it for all its worth, director Nichols flings all the gags into the pot together, letting them clink and spin like so many chips, until everything overlaps and you cant tell life from lunacy. Nat Frey shuffles the pack as though he were crushing glass in his strong bare hands, John Fielder sings his piping little song about having to leave by twelve until it takes on the piercing sound of counterpoint from another planet, Sidney Armus and Paul dooley fling their arms up and their cards down like men freshly accused of treason, and Mr. Matthau grunts and bellows in his homespun way to put a moose-like bass under the whole hot summer-night orchestration. The interplay is true, blue, and beautiful.
After the poker game comes the play, which is jim-dandy, ginger-peachy, and good. Mr. Matthau is a divorced man, which is why he is able to have all his friends in on Friday nights and also why the eight room apartment looks like one of those village bazaars at which underprivileged citizens can exchange their old refuse. (Oliver Smith has caught in his setting just the right muddy and mottled note for ramshackle bachelor quarters with the trousers back from the cleaners hanging where they ought to be, from the bookshelves, and with a nice fat hole burned in what used to be the best lampshade).
Into the dissolute comfort and the brawling bliss of Mr. Matthaus menage comes a thin note of warning. One friend, who turns out shortly to be Art Carney, hasnt shown up. News is received that he, too, has left his wife. Furthermore, he is threatening suicide, sort of. Now it is time for Mike Nichols to set his mother-hen actors pacing, pacing, pacing the floor as they brood and cluck and worry inordinately about their deeply disturbed buddy. When Mr. Carney does finally appear, the rush to save him from himself all windows are locked tightly against jumping and hes scarcely allowed to go to the bathroom alone is sympathetic, solicitous and rough as a maddened hockey game. We may not have had as funny a first act since The Acharnians.
Naturally, Mr. Matthau and Mr. Carney now settle down his roommates, making as nice a couple as youd care to meet if they could only get along. Mr. Carney is death on dust and a fast man with an Aerosol bomb (one reason his wife threw him out is that he always insisted on recooking the dinner) and he drives Mr. Matthau stark, staring mad. In short, both of them might just as well have wives and that constitutes the meat, the moral, and the malicious merriment of this brief encounter.
The contest thins out a bit, I am honor bound to say, during the second act, while Mr. Carney worries desperately over his London broil and reduces a couple of visiting pigeons (theyre girls, theyre sisters, and their name is Pigeon) to tears. But the repeated joke is at least a good joke, the Pigeon sisters ultimately prove to be funny and useful, Mr. Simons comic inventions keep re-igniting, and the poker players are coming back, so I wouldnt even notice if I were you.
Now a word about Mr. Matthau, and I do hope the Moscow Art is listening. Mr. Matthau could play all of the parts in Dead Souls with one hand tied to one foot and without changing makeup. He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent. Of course, he is good, too, impersonating an orangutan as he leaps furniture in his wild desire to make certain alterations in Mr. Carneys throat, and again when he shows his old pal the door (only to be haunted by the memory of that despairing face and by a parting remark that he comes to think of as The Curse of the Cat People). But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catchers mitt.
We mustnt overlook Mr. Carney, who is immensely funny quivering his lip like an agitated duck, clearing his ears by emitting foghorn hoots, and clawing his hands through what is left of his hair to indicate pride, despair and all of the other seven deadly virtues. His problem is tension (Its tension. I get it from tension. I must be tense, he says) and ours is to keep from laughing through the next good line.
It's a good problem to have, and I urge you to drop in on The Odd Couple any night at all, Fridays included.