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The BBC's Nick Higham
Looks back on the career of Walter Matthau
 real 28k

Saturday, 1 July, 2000, 13:29 GMT 14:29 UK
Walter Matthau: Lovable slouch
Walter Matthau
Matthau had a long list of comedy successes
Walter Matthau was the king of the entertainment world's grouchy but lovable slobs.

With his craggy, lugubrious features and his growly voice, Matthau became a star in the Broadway production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.

Later, he played the same role in the film version opposite Jack Lemmon with whom he shared a successful partnership throughout his career.


With Lemmon in The Odd Couple
Matthau and Lemmon in The Odd Couple
Walter Matthau was born in New York City in October 1920, the son of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.

His ambition to become an actor began at the age of 11 when he sold ice cream at Yiddish theatres along Second Avenue. Eventually, he began playing bit parts in Yiddish musical comedies while continuing to sell refreshments during the intervals.

In 1942 Matthau enlisted in the United States Army Air Force. He served as a radio operator and gunner in England, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. He won six battle stars.


With Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie
His partnership with Lemmon began in The Fortune Cookie
With the war over Matthau returned to New York to study acting at the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop, where, under the German-born director Erwin Piscator, he got what he described as "the real feel for acting".

Between innumerable successful stage performances, Matthau began to appear in a variety of supporting roles in Hollywood films, mainly as villains.

He also appeared in hundreds of TV shows, most notably in his own series Tallahassee 7000. He found television the least satisfying branch of the entertainment media, admitting that he acted in it "primarily for the minor convenience of making a living".


Matthau in close-up
In The Taking of Pelham 123
It was his huge Broadway success in The Odd Couple that pushed him into major film parts.

He became a movie star as the shyster lawyer with the deadpan delivery in The Fortune Cookie in 1966, his first of many films with Jack Lemmon. It won him an Academy Award as best supporting actor.

Their screen relationship was once described as "a hothouse of cold-blooded comic neurosis". It continued into the nineties with the Grumpy Old Men films.

Matthau's long list of comedy successes included most notably Kotch, in which he played a widower in his seventies, and two more by Neil Simon - Plaza Suite and The Sunshine Boys, in which and he and George Burns were two ex-Vaudeville comics who could not stand the sight of each other.

He also played straight roles laced with his wisecracking style in other such films as Charlie Varrick and The Taking of Pelham 123.


In The Sunshine Boys
One of The Sunshine Boys
Walter Matthau's physical appearance has been described on different occasions as shaggy, hang-dog and like an unmade bed.

Away from acting, he had a reputation as a gambler, particularly on the horses, and was said to have once lost $40,000 in one day.

In May 1993 he was honoured with a Lifetime's Achievement Award by America's National Association of Theatre Owners.

A critic, describing a performance of his, wrote: "By change of facial muscles and posture, the way in which he wears his clothes and moves his long, lean body, Walter Matthau can ease himself into any type of character: diplomat, intellectual, military, suave crook, tough sheriff, lovable slob."

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See also:

01 Jul 00 | Americas
Walter Matthau: A life in pictures
01 Jul 00 | Americas
The films of Walter Matthau
01 Jul 00 | Americas
Actor Walter Matthau dies
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