Walter Matthau

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Walter Matthau, 1990s

Walter John Matthau [ ˈmæθaʊ ] (born October 1, 1920 in New York , † July 1, 2000 in Santa Monica , California ) was an American film actor and Oscar winner . He was best known through appearances in film comedies on the side of Jack Lemmon . Matthau was also repeatedly used as a character actor . His special trademark was his unmistakable "crumple face".

life and work


Walter Matthau was born Walter John Matthow on October 1, 1920 in the Lower East Side . He was the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. His father left the family when he was three years old.

He and his older brother Henry grew up in great poverty. Their mother Rose worked hard and had a modest income as a seamstress. At the age of four, Matthau took part in religious plays and read poetry at meetings in elementary school. He worked as a candy seller in Jewish theaters, took on minor roles in stage plays and decided to change the spelling of his name because he found Matthau more elegant. At the age of 14, Matthau played the role of Polonius in a Hamlet production. He was interested in sports and competitions.

After graduating from school, Matthau managed to get by with poorly paid jobs for three years from 1939, including scrubbing floors in a factory. In April 1942 he was drafted into the Army and was stationed in Great Britain from 1943. Matthau served in the 453rd Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force , which also included James Stewart (with the rank of Colonel ). Since Matthau was only a staff sergeant , he had little contact with the famous Hollywood actor. Matthau was wounded several times during the war. He himself always downplayed his war experiences and, for example, said that he was the "armed forces table tennis master" during the war.


After the war, Matthau profited from the fact that the government gave former soldiers generous training grants. He first studied journalism and then switched to the Dramatic Workshop of the New School of Social Research , which was founded by Erwin Piscator in New York in 1940 and led until 1951. Numerous well-known US actors were trained there by Piscator, whose achievements testify to his lasting influence on the development of American acting culture. Piscator's Dramatic Workshop is considered a forerunner of Actors Studios .

Matthau studied together with colleagues like Rod Steiger , Tony Curtis , Eli Wallach or Harry Belafonte , who later made careers in Hollywood like him . He gained his first experience as an actor and played in summer theaters and at the Orange County Playhouse in New York. He supplemented his income with jobs as a waiter or brush seller. For the stage play Twilight Walk , Matthau received the New York Theater Critics' Prize. From 1950 he took on roles on television, in which short pieces were performed live at the time, which demanded a high degree of skill and discipline from the actors. Numerous well-known actors such as Jack Lemmon , Paul Newman or Charlton Heston learned their trade on live TV and thus acquired the skills that they could later use as film actors.

Matthau, who worked for television until the mid-1960s, played, among other things, several times in the series Alfred Hitchcock presents . At the same time, he continued to work as a stage actor and enjoyed success in plays such as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? or A Shot In The Dark . He received two Tony Awards for his theater work . Since Matthau was passionate about gambling and betting from an early age, his financial situation was mostly tense. He once bet his entire annual salary on the outcome of a baseball show tournament.

In 1955, the 35-year-old made his film debut in the western The Man from Kentucky , in which he played a whip-wielding villain alongside Burt Lancaster. In the following years he made a name for himself as a supporting actor of mostly opaque, rather unsympathetic characters. Although he was recognized by the critics as having great talent, the actor with the furrowed "wrinkled face" did not seem suitable for a big career in the cinema, as he did not correspond to the current ideal of a film actor at all. In 1955, director Billy Wilder wanted to engage Matthau as the leading actor for his comedy The 7th Year Itch, but the producing studio refused to entrust the still completely unknown actor with such an important role.

Matthau continuously earned recognition in Hollywood and took on bigger and bigger roles over the years. Because of his unmistakable appearance and his special acting talent, he acquired the reputation of a "scene stealer" who was able to steal the show from the main actors even in small scenes. He worked alongside well-known colleagues such as Kirk Douglas ( Lonely are the brave , 1962) or Cary Grant , next to whom he played an opaque CIA agent in the thriller Charade (1963). He played alongside well-known actors such as Henry Fonda , Gregory Peck and his former acting school colleague Tony Curtis.

From 1959 until the end of his life, Walter Matthau was married to Carol Grace , the ex-wife of William Saroyan . Their son Charles Matthau became a film director, under whose direction their father starred in the 1995 Truman-Capote film adaptation of The Grass Harp . Walter Matthau lived very withdrawn in his private life and described himself as a shy person. He was a great lover of classical music.


After a 20-year acting career, the 45-year-old made his final breakthrough in the mid-1960s. Comedy writer Neil Simon chose him in 1965 as the main actor in his play A Strange Couple , in which Matthau, as a grumpy but lovable chaot, found his star role , with which he was identified from then on. The play became a huge success and established the actor as one of the leading stage comedians in the United States.

In the following year, Matthau was also able to assert himself as a cinema actor. In Wilder's tragic comedy Der Glückspilz (1966) he took on the role of the sly, angular lawyer Willi Gingrich, who threads a complicated insurance fraud. The film marked the beginning of the very successful collaboration with Jack Lemmon , at that point already one of the most popular Hollywood stars. Lemmon and Matthau, who were also close friends in private, became the most famous comedy duo of their time and appeared in a total of ten films by 1998. Matthau was awarded the Oscar for best supporting actor for his portrayal of the sleazy lawyer .

He almost never saw his big breakthrough because as a result of excessive smoking and chronic gambling addiction (he himself estimated his gambling losses at a total of USD 5 million), he suffered a serious heart attack in 1966 (for a few minutes he was pronounced dead in the hospital). Matthau gave up smoking and walked two to five miles every day from then on, but his health was in poor health throughout his life.

In 1968, in the film adaptation of A Strange Couple , directed by Gene Saks , Walter Matthau achieved worldwide success alongside his congenial partner Lemmon. In the role of the chaotic sports reporter Oskar Madison, who is letting his apartment deteriorate, he fought sharp-tongued verbiage with his friend Felix Ungar (Lemmon), a neurotic fanatic of order, who quartered in Madison's apartment because his wife threw him out of the shared apartment . A Strange Couple became one of the duo's best-known films and became one of the most successful films of the late 1960s with grossing $ 44 million in the US alone. In 1970 the film resulted in a TV series in which Jack Klugman and Tony Randall played Oskar Madison and Felix Ungar.

While the careers of many stars went into a tailspin in the late 1960s, Walter Matthau established himself as a cash-rich top star with a large, worldwide fan base at his late 40s for years to come. Typically he embodied grumpy men with sour facial expressions, whose misanthropic demeanor caused a lot of amusement. Matthau was now one of the higher-paid actors in Hollywood and received, for example, fees of $ 800,000 in the mid-1970s.

In 1968 he was seen in the bizarre fantasy erotic comedy Candy , which was supposed to reflect the liberal zeitgeist of the late 1960s, but failed at the box office despite a top-class cast (including Marlon Brando and Richard Burton ).

With a production time of two years and a gigantic budget of around $ 25 million, the musical film Hello, Dolly! (1969) one of the most elaborate productions of the 1960s. Directed by Gene Kelly , Matthau starred alongside Barbra Streisand , one of the superstars of that era, and played the "half-millionaire" Horace Vandergelder, who after all sorts of entanglements married his own matchmaker. Matthau didn’t get along with Streisand during the filming and accused her of “megalomania”. Hello, Dolly !, one of the last highly budgeted musical films that was intended to lure audiences into the cinemas in the second half of the 1960s, could not bring in its enormous production costs.

In the tabloid comedy Die Kaktusblüte (1969), Matthau acted alongside Ingrid Bergman as an unwilling dentist with relationship problems who eventually fell in love with his office assistant. Critics particularly praised the perfect interplay between these two experienced leading actors.


Matthau, who saw himself as a character actor, disliked being labeled a comedian. Although he continued to appear regularly in films of this genre ( Nobody Kills As Badly As I Do , 1971, Hotel Whisper , 1971), he also took on roles in more serious films in the early 1970s. In the 1950s and 1960s he had already won over in dramatic roles, such as The Man from Kentucky (1955), Lonely are the brave (1961), Charade (1963), or The 27th Floor (1964).

In 1973 he appeared under the direction of Don Siegel in the action thriller The Great Coup in the unfamiliar role of a bank robber who is chased by the police and the mafia after a failed coup. In the same year he played a police detective in Mass Murder in San Francisco , who had to solve a bus massacre. Matthau made his best-known appearance in a crime film in 1974 in Stops the Death Ride of Subway 123 , in which, as a subway policeman, he is confronted with the kidnapping of a New York subway train and desperately tries to save the lives of the passengers . These films were less successful than his popular comedies, however.

In 1974, Matthau made a cameo under the name Walter Matuschanskayasky in the disaster film Earthquake and portrayed a drinker who survived the eponymous earthquake unscathed in a bar. In the same year he was again seen under the direction of Billy Wilder and at the side of his long-term partner Jack Lemmon. Extrablatt was a biting satire on the newspaper, police and judicial milieu as well as on the political establishment, which is dominated by cynicism and corruption. Although set in 1929, the film made a clear reference to the Watergate era in which it was made in terms of staging, content and dialogue . Matthau was seen as the cunning editor-in-chief Walter Burns, who uses all sorts of dirty tricks to prevent his star reporter Hildy Johnson (Lemmon) from changing jobs. Lemmon and Matthau were also successful at the box office with this film.

In 1974 Walter Matthau appeared - alongside Jack Lemmon - in the play Juno and the Paycock for the last time as a stage actor, in 1975 he and George Burns appeared in The Sunny Boys as quarreling alto comedians. Matthau appeared here in the guise of a much older man. In the following years he played, among other things, a baseball coach in The Bears Are Losing (1976) and a widowed surgeon who falls in love again ( home visits , 1978). With these and other films, Matthau was again very successful and confirmed his position as one of Hollywood's leading comedians.

In April 1976, Matthau, whose health had been in poor health since his heart attack, underwent bypass surgery.


Matthew's grave

Walter Matthau died on the night of July 1, 2000 in a hospital near Santa Monica as a result of a second heart attack. He was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery ; next to him, his long-time friend Jack Lemmon , who died less than a year after him, found his final resting place.

The "Matuschanskayasky legend"

It was often written that his real name was Matuschanskayasky. He himself was largely responsible for the occurrence of this misinformation. Matthau was known for making up funny stories that he told seriously, especially when he had to answer the same questions over and over in interviews. He often claimed that his middle name was Foghorn ( English for Nebelhorn) or that he was in the line of succession to the British throne. Sometimes such stories were taken seriously, which amused Matthau.

The name Matuschanskayasky first appeared in the credits of the film Earthquake , in which Matthau played a drunken guest in a bar. Originally intended as a short cameo , his name shouldn't actually appear in the credits. With the finished cut, it became clear to Matthau that his appearance was more like that of a supporting role and that his name would be mentioned. This was not his intention, so he made sure that he appeared in the credits as Walter Matuschanskayasky .

When asked about it in interviews, he usually replied that it was actually his real name. He often adorned the information with stories about an alleged espionage career of his father, whom he also made an Orthodox priest in Tsarist Russia.

Filmography (selection)

Dubbing voices

Matthaus probably the best-known dubbing voice is that of Wolfgang Lukschy (e.g. stops the journey of the U-Bahn 123 , a strange couple ). Further speakers were Wolfgang Völz and Martin Hirthe .


Star on the Walk of Fame


  • 1966: Oscar as best supporting actor for Der Glückspilz
  • 1971: Nomination for best leading actor for Grandpa can't help but be
  • 1975: Nomination for best leading actor for The Sunny Boys

Golden Globe

  • 1966: Nomination as best supporting actor for Der Glückspilz
  • 1968: Nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy for A Strange Couple
  • 1971: Nomination for best leading actor for Grandpa can't help but be
  • 1972: Nomination for Best Actor for Peter and Tillie
  • 1974: Nomination for best leading actor for Extrablatt
  • 1976: Golden Globe as best leading actor for The Sunny Boys
  • 1980: Nomination for Best Actor for Agent Poker
  • 1981: Nomination for best leading actor for One Monday in October


  • 1969: Nomination for Best Actor for Hello, Dolly!
  • 1970: Nomination for best leading actor for The Secret Life of an American Woman
  • 1973: Best Actor Award for Peter and Tillie
  • 1973: Best Actor Award for The Great Coup
  • 1977: Nomination for best leading actor for The Sunny Boys
  • 1977: Nomination for Best Actor for The Bears Are Going

Laurel Awards

  • 1967: Laurel Award for Best Supporting Actor for Der Glückspilz
  • 1968: Laurel Award for Best Actor in a Comedy for A Strange Couple
  • 1968: Nomination for best male star
  • 1970: Nomination for best male star


  • 1962: Nomination for Big Deal in Laredo (TV)

Further awards and honors

  • 1967: Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Lucky One
  • 1972: Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for Grandpa Can't Stop
  • 1975: David di Donatello Prize for Best Foreign Actor for Extra Journal
  • 1993: Lifetime Achievement Award from the ShoWest Convention for his life's work
  • 1997: Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy from the American Comedy Awards for lifetime achievement as a comedian


  • Allan Hunter: Walter Matthau. His films - his life. Heyne, Munich 1986, ISBN 3-453-86100-0 .

Web links

Commons : Walter Matthau  - Collection of Images

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Rob Edelman: Matthau: a life . Taylor Trade Publishing, Lanham, Maryland 2002, ISBN 0-87833-274-X , p. 4.
  2. ^ Stuart J. Wright: An emotional gauntlet: from life in peacetime America to the war in European skies . Terrace Books, 2004, ISBN 0-299-20520-7 , p. 179.
  3. IMDb
  4. The grave of Walter Matthau