10/17/2010 08:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2013

Missing Mr. Matthau

On the first of this month, Walter Matthau, who left us just a decade ago, would have turned ninety. Ruminating on this un-noted milestone made me consider anew what a unique and gifted screen actor he was.

Matthau was never endowed with the superficial attributes of your typical Hollywood star: he had a pronounced New York accent, a stooping gait, and the weathered face of a bloodhound. And yet the force of his talent and persona made him one.

It was a long road getting there. He was born in New York City to poor immigrants from Russia. Three years later, his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother, who worked in the garment industry, to support two sons. At the tender age of 11, Walter caught the acting bug, and started playing in Yiddish theatre. Once out of high school, Matthau found work in several New Deal programs, before the Second War took him overseas.

He came back a decorated soldier, with his sights set on the lights of Broadway. He got his first break playing an understudy in the 1948 stage production of "Anne Of The Thousand Days", starring Rex Harrison. The twenty-eight year old actor's role: playing a Bishop of eighty plus years!

Walter Matthau would spend the next fifteen years supporting himself and a family of two kids doing live television and occasional plays. He also tried out for the Tom Ewell part in Billy Wilder's "The Seven Year Itch" (1955). Wilder wanted him, but the brass at Twentieth Century Fox would not take a chance on a no-name actor. (Instead, the part went to Tom Ewell, who had originated it on stage). Two years later, however, Matthau landed a key supporting role in Elia Kazan's "A Face In The Crowd", a high profile feature that got him noticed.

Still, the actor would be over forty before the big time beckoned. At this point, having won a Tony in 1962 for "A Shot In The Dark", he was not only finding himself in films, but in great films: first that same year, appearing in the western classic "Lonely Are The Brave" , starring Kirk Douglas, then playing the villain with considerable humor in Stanley Donen's superb Hitchcock homage, "Charade" (1963).

Now happily remarried to Carol Grace Saroyan (who bore him his last child, Charlie- later to become a film director), Matthau began making up for lost time. Most notably, he co-starred with Henry Fonda in Sidney Lumet's gripping tale of nuclear Armageddon, "Fail-Safe" (1964), followed up by a third-billed part in Edward Dmytryk's crackerjack suspense entry "Mirage" (1965), starring Gregory Peck and Diane Baker.

The next year Matthau would land with three people who would all play some part in his future endeavors: Billy Wilder (who had not forgotten him from a decade before), Neil Simon, and Jack Lemmon. The movie was "The Fortune Cookie" (1966), a black comedy about a cameraman (Lemmon) who gets knocked down during a football game. His minor injury then gets exaggerated by his shyster brother-in-law (Matthau) for the purpose of collecting damages. The movie clicked with audiences, and at 46, Matthau won his first -and only- Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. (This also marked the start of a close friendship and rich collaboration between the Harvard educated Lemmon and working class Walter- they would make nine more movies together.)

Now Matthau was a star, and he'd remain one. Tellingly, he'd stay in demand not simply by hewing closely to his natural forte as a comic actor, but by expanding his range to include action protagonists and even romantic leads. The following titles represent my favorite Matthau outings over the particularly fertile period of the late sixties and seventies:

A Guide For The Married Man
(1967) -- Gene Kelly's comedy has the married Paul Manning (Matthau) getting a crash course on the finer points of adultery from also married veteran adulterer Ed Stander (Robert Morse). The lessons Ed imparts are acted out in sequences featuring a long line of guest stars, including Jack Benny, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Art Carney, Phil Silvers, Wally Cox, Lucille Ball, and Jayne Mansfield. One of the more side-splitting comedies of the 1960s, dated and politically incorrect in the extreme, which only makes it funnier today. Director Gene Kelly (yes-he was also a dancer) deserves kudos for taking the most delicate of subject matter and toeing the line of good taste like an expert tightrope walker. Both Matthau and Morse are a riot together, but some of those cameos take the cake: in particular, look for the Reiner, Ball and Carney sequences. Also, dig that catchy title tune by The Turtles-like the rest of the movie, it's quintessential sixties.

The Odd Couple
(1968) -- When fussy, uptight Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is thrown out of the house by his wife, he wanders the streets of New York in a depressive funk. Concerned about his best friend's mental state, the already divorced Oscar Madison (Matthau) invites Felix to move in. Horrendously mismatched, Oscar and Felix are soon at each other's throats. Based on Neil Simon's award-winning Broadway play (in which Matthau also starred), "The Odd Couple" was the second and best pairing of real-life buddies Lemmon and Matthau, and spawned a long-running TV series. The inspired premise of a platonic, male love/hate relationship is best realized in this, the original film, with Lemmon's neurotic, melancholy Felix counter-balanced by Matthau's gruff Oscar, a carefree sportswriter who gives new meaning to the word "slovenly." In particular, don't miss the hilarious scenes with the duo's upstairs neighbors, the Pigeon sisters.

Charley Varrick
(1972) -- After a small-town bank heist leaves three people dead, including his girlfriend Nadine, small-time crook Charley Varrick (Matthau) hides out with his stick-up partner, Harman (Andrew Robinson), to count the loot. Instead of netting the expected two grand, the thieves find themselves holding $750,000 in freshly laundered money. Now Varrick's got to outfox both the cops and a spooky hired killer (Jo Don Baker) sent by the people he inadvertently burned: the mafia. Shortly after veteran action director Don Siegel scored a direct hit with "Dirty Harry," he made this unjustly overlooked crime drama starring a gawky, beak-nosed Matthau, in the role of an exceedingly wily protagonist. Playing wildly against type, Matthau is aces as a sarcastic airman turned bank robber who uses his wits in lieu of a gun. The menacing Baker is wickedly good, too, as Molly, his pipe-smoking would-be executioner. Rejecting the romantic view of crime made famous by "Bonnie and Clyde", this film is taut and tingling, and Siegel directs with no-nonsense conviction.

The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three
(1974) -- The responsibilities of the New York City Transit police are considerable, especially when a group of criminals takes a subway train hostage between stations. Then the whole crazy town gets into the act. Luckily, laconic Lieutenant Zach "Z" Garber (Matthau) is the man on the scene, and he's determined to flush out his clever quarry before gang ringleader Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) fulfills his promise of killing the passengers one-by-one. Joseph Sargent's pulsating cat-and-mouse thriller gives off a potent seventies flavor, a time when the Big Apple was in fiscal crisis. Salty New York characters are in abundance, and the droopy faced Matthau fits right in, effortlessly assuming the jaded, rumpled contours of veteran Manhattan cop. As Z's chief nemesis, Shaw's Mr. Blue is a study in contrasts: cold, sharp, organized, and ruthless. In a city already coming apart at the seams, can overextended authorities prevail over these audacious criminals?

House Calls
(1978) -- Matthau plays Charley Nichols, doctor and widower, who's experiencing a second adolescence with the sudden bounty of available and attractive women in his life. Enter patient Ann Atkinson (Glenda Jackson), a sharp-tongued divorcee who has given up on love-that is, until she meets the good doctor. Charley himself is also intrigued, but does he want to give up his new-found freedom so soon? This delightful, refreshingly human romantic comedy benefits from a top-notch script (by Max Shulman and Julius Epstein-co-writer of "Casablanca"), and the unexpected chemistry between the quirky but lovable Matthau and the starchy Jackson, who both shine and seem to be having lots of fun. Affirming once again that true love will triumph over casual sex, "Calls" delivers a charming, clever romance, with plenty of laughs to go around.

Matthau, an old trouper, worked steadily through the eighties and nineties, and through sheer talent and that unmistakable on-screen presence, usually managed to elevate most any ordinary vehicle in which he appeared.

Walter Matthau, wherever you are -- we miss you.

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