Walter Matthau
Birth Date:
October 1, 1920
Birth Place:
New York City, New York, USA
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The Odd Couple


“To be successful in show business, all you need are 50 good breaks.” Walter Matthau

Academy and Tony Award winning actor Walter Matthau (born in 1920, died in 2000) first left his mark on stage with roles in the Broadway plays “Guys and Dolls” (1955), “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” (1955), “Once More, with Feeling” (1958) and “A Shot in the Dark” (1961), to name a few. However, it was not until he originated the role of Oscar Madison in Neil Simon's “The Odd Couple” (1965) that he gained true prominence. He took home a Tony Award for Best Actor (Dramatic) for his performance and reprised the role of Oscar Madison for the big screen version of “The Odd Couple” (1968) and “The Odd Couple II” (1998). He stated, “Every actor looks all his life for a part that will combine his talents with his personality. ‘The Odd Couple’ (1968) was mine. That was the plutonium I needed. It all started happening after that.”

Matthau won his Oscar for his supporting role in the Billy Wilder film “The Fortune Cookie” (1966), from which he also picked up a Golden Globe nomination. He received Academy Award nominations for his starring roles in “Kotch” (1971) and “The Sunshine Boys” (1975). Other movie credits include “The Secret Life of an American Wife” (1968), “Pete 'n' Tillie” (1972), “Charley Varrick” (1973), “The Bad News Bears” (1976), “The Front Page” (1974), “Hopscotch” (1980) and “First Monday in October” (1981). Known for frequently working with Jack Lemmon, they would go on to act together in eight more films, including “Grumpy Old Men” (1993) and its sequel “Grumpier Old Men” (1995).

Matthau received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to motion pictures. He was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1993 ShoWest Convention and a Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy at the 1997 American Comedy Awards.

The son of immigrants was married twice and had a son and daughter with first wife Grace Geraldine Johnson (together from 1948 to 1958) and one son, film and TV director Charles Matthau, with his second his wife, actress/writer Carol Grace (together from 1959 until his death in 2000).

Walter John Matthow

Childhood and Family:

Born Walter John Matthow on October 1, 1920, Walter Matthau lived with his mother, Rose Matthow (from Lithuania, was a garment worker), and his older brother, Henry, in New York City's lower east side after his father, Milton Matthau, a peddler and electrician from Russia, left their home when Walter was 3 years old. He grew up in poverty and helped support his family by selling soft drinks and playing small parts at a Yiddish theater group at age 11. He earned 50 cents for his sporadic onstage appearances. Young Walter, whose nickname was Jake, attended Tranquility Camp, a Jewish nonprofit camp and Surprise Lake Camp. He graduated from Seward Park High School and shortly thereafter took on various government jobs, which included working as a forest ranger in Montana, a gym instructor for the Works Progress Administration, and a boxing coach for policemen. During World War II, he joined the U.S. Army Air Force as a radio cryptographer and was sent to Europe. After returning home, he worked for Railway Express in Reno, Nevada. He later moved back to New York City where he enrolled at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School for Social Research.

In 1948, Walter married Grace Geraldine Johnson and they had a son named David on November 2, 1953. The couple also had a daughter named Jenny. He and his wife divorced in 1958. He then married actress and author Carol Grace (born in 1924, died in 2003) on August 21, 1959. The couple welcomed a son, Charles Matthau, on December 10, 1962. As a child, Charles appeared with his father in several films, including “Charley Varrick” (1973), “The Bad News Bears” (1976) and “House Calls” (1978). He later directed his father in the 1995 film “The Grass Harp.” Walter also had two stepchildren, Aram and Lucy Saroyan, from Carol's previous marriage to Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan.

Walter battled heart disease and underwent bypass surgery in 1976. He was also diagnosed with colon cancer and had the tumor removed in 1995. On July 1, 2000, Walter died in Santa Monica, California, at age 79 of a heart attack.

The Fortune Cookie


Walter Matthau made his professional stage debut at age 11 when he appeared in the musical comedy “The Dishwasher” (1931). After landing government jobs and later serving in the U.S. Army Air Force, he studied acting at New York's Dramatic Workshop of the New School. He returned to the stage in 1946 in a summer stock production of “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” at the Erie County Playhouse in Pennsylvania. The following year, he became a stock player with New York's Orange County Playhouse.

Matthau made his Broadway debut as an understudy in Maxwell Anderson's “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1948), starring Rex Harrison. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, he appeared in numerous stage productions, including “The Liar” (1950), “Twilight Walk” (1951), “Fancy Meeting You Again” (1952), “One Bright Day” (1952), “In Any Language” (1952), “The Grey-Eyed People” (1952), “The Ladies of the Corridor” (1953), “The Burning Glass” (1953), “Once There Was a Russian” (1961) and “My Mother, My Father and Me” (1963). He also appeared with his future wife Carol Grace in George Axelrod's original Broadway production of “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” (1955), played Nathan Detroit in a 1955 revival of “Guys and Dolls,” and co-starred in a Broadway production of “Once More, with Feeling!” (1958). Matthau was nominated for a Tony for Best Featured Actor for his performance in the last production, but did not pick up his first trophy until 1962 for his performance in “A Shot in the Dark” (1961). He won his second Tony Award in 1965, this time for Best Actor (Dramatic), for his portrayal of Oscar Madison in Neil Simon's “The Odd Couple” (1965).

Matthau's screen career began in the 1950s with appearances in the TV shows “Lux Video Theatre,” “Studio One,” “Suspense,” “Danger,” “The Motorola Television Hour,” “Armstrong Circle Theatre,” “The Philco Television Playhouse” and “Robert Montgomery Presents.” He branched out to film acting in 1955 when he landed the supporting role of Stan Bodine in the western “The Kentuckian,” which was directed by and starred Burt Lancaster. It was followed by roles in such films as “The Indian Fighter” (1955, with Kirk Douglas), “Bigger Than Life” (1956, opposite James Mason), Elia Kazan's “A Face in the Crowd” (1957, with Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal and Anthony Franciosa), “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (1957, as Al Dahlke), “King Creole” (1958, starred Elvis Presley), “Voice in the Mirror” (1958, directed by Harry Keller), “Ride a Crooked Trail” (1958) and “Onionhead” (1958, reunited with Andy Griffith). He made his feature film directorial debut with “Gangster Story” (1959), where he also starred as Jack Martin, opposite his wife Carol.

Throughout the 1960s, Matthau continued to land gigs on TV and films. The New York native actor supported Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak in the movie “Strangers When We Meet” in 1960 and starred as Lex Rogers in the short lived series “Tallahassee 7000” the following year. He again worked with Douglas in David Miller's drama “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962), which was adapted from the novel “The Brave Cowboy” by Edward Abbey, supported Dean Martin and Lana Turner in Daniel Mann's “Who's Got the Action” (1962), based on Alexander Rose's novel “Four Horse Players Are Missing,” and worked with Tony Randall in the comedy film “Island of Love” (1963). Still in 1963, he offered a notable villainous turn as CIA agent Hamilton Bartholomew in the Stanley Donen directed mystery “Charade” (1963), opposite Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. He then received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in the episode “Big Deal in Laredo” (1962) of “The DuPont Show of the Month,” which he also narrated. He next had a memorable supporting role as Doc in director Joshua Logan's comedy film “Ensign Pulver” (1964), costarred in Sidney Lumet's “Fail-Safe” (1964), appeared with Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds in “Goodbye Charlie” (1964) and portrayed Ted Caselle in the thriller “Mirage” (1964, starred Gregory Peck). He also appeared in episodes of “Route 66,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Target: The Corruptors,” “Naked City,” “The Rogues,” “Dr. Kildare” and “Profiles in Courage.”

Despite a heart attack in the mid 1960s, Matthau scored huge success with his scene stealing portrayal of Willie Gingrich, the calculating lawyer brother-in-law of Harry Hinkle (played by Jack Lemmon), in “The Fortune Cookie” (1965). Under the direction of Billy Wilder, he won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical/Comedy. The role also brought him a 1967 Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award and a Golden Laurel Award. After starring with Inger Stevens in Gene Kelly's “A Guide for the Married Man” (1967), he was reunited with Lemmon in the popular big screen adaptation of Neil Simon's “The Odd Couple” (1968), where he reprised his Tony winning role of Oscar Madison and Jack Lemmon portrayed Felix Unger. The film was directed by Gene Saks and written for the screen by Simon. He closed out the decade with strong performances in Gene Kelly's film version of the musical “Hello, Dolly” (1969), opposite Barbra Streisand and Michael Crawford, and Saks' film adaptation of Ade Burrows' play “Cactus Flower” (1969), which emerged as the seventh most successful film of 1970.

After starring in Elaine May's “A New Leaf,” playing a gold digger named Henry Graham, and “Plaza Suite” (both 1971), which was scripted by Neil Simon and based on his play, Matthau was cast as a retired salesman in the comedy film “Kotch” (1971), Lemmon's first and only behind the camera effort. For his acting, Matthau received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical/Comedy, and a Kansas City Film Critics Circle award for Best Actor. He briefly returned to the small screen in 1972 when he played Moe Axelrod in the TV film “ Awake and Sing” (PBS) and worked with Carol Burnett in Martin Ritt's “Pete 'n' Tillie.” In 1973, he starred in Don Siegel's crime film “Charley Varrick,” based on the novel “The Looters” by John H. Reese. He won BAFTA Awards in the category of Best Actor for his work in “Pete 'n' Tillie” and “Charley Varrick” and an additional Golden Globe nomination for Golden Globe Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical/Comedy for the first. He next starred in the thriller “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974), made a cameo appearance in director Mark Robson's “Earthquake” (1974), and was reunited with Lemmon in the Billy Wilder directed dramatic comedy “The Front Page” (1974), where he costarred as Walter Burns. The latter film earned the actor a David for Best Foreign Actor (Migliore Attore Straniero), which he shared with Lemmon, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical/Comedy. Still in 1974, he returned to the stage after nearly a decade absence in “Juno and the Paycock” in Los Angeles.

In 1975, Matthau starred as Willy Clark in “The Sunshine Boys” (1975), directed by Herbert Ross and scripted by Simon from his play of the same name. Costarring with George Burns, Richard Benjamin, Lee Meredith and F. Murray Abraham, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance. He followed it up starring as coach Morris Buttermaker in Michael Ritchie's “The Bad News Bears” (1976), from which he nabbed a BAFTA Film nomination for Best Actor for the role, costarred with Glenda Jackson and Art Carney in Howard Zieff's “House Calls” (1978) and teamed up again with director Martin Ritt for the drama “Casey's Shadow” (1978). He then appeared in Simon’s “California Suite” (1978).

Matthau next starred as Sorrowful Jones in Walter Bernstein's remake of “Little Miss Marker” (1980), which he also executive produced, and was reunited with Glenda Jackson in “Hopscotch” (1980), where he netted a 1981 Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical/Comedy for his role. He received another Golden Globe nomination for starring in “First Monday in October” (1981), which was adapted from the play of the same name by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and directed by Ronald Neame. The same year, he rejoined Lemmon in the comedy film “Buddy Buddy,” Matthau's third and last partnership with director Billy Wilder. The following year, he was reunited with Ross and Simon in “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” which also starred Ann-Margret. Matthau's subsequent film credits included Michael Ritchie's “The Survivors” (1983, opposite Robin Williams), “The Couch Trip” (1988, with Dan Aykroyd), Roman Polanski's “Pirates” (1986, as Captain Red) and “Il piccolo diavolo” (1988), an Italian film written and directed by and starring Roberto Benigni.

1990 saw Matthau revisit television when he starred as Harmon Cobb in the CBS movie “The Incident,” which was directed by Joseph Sargent. He would reprise the role in the two installments “Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore” (1992) and “Incident in a Small Town” (1994, both directed by Delbert Mann). In 1991, the actor portrayed Clifford Pepperman in the CBS TV film “Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love,” which was directed by his son, Charles Matthau, and Senator Long in Oliver Stone's Oscar winning biopic “JFK.” After starring as George Wilson in the live action film “Dennis the Menace” (1993), adapted from the Hank Ketcham comic strip of the same name, he costarred with Lemmon in director Donald Petrie's “Grumpy Old Men” (1993), which also reunited him with Ann-Margret, played Albert Einstein in Fred Schepisi's “ I.Q.” (1994), opposite Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan, and reprised his role of Max Goldman in the sequel “Grumpier Old Men” (1995), again with Lemmon and Margret. He also worked with Lemmon in the films “The Grass Harp” (1995), directed by son Charles Matthau, and “Out to Sea” (1997), directed by Martha Coolidge. Matthau and Jack Lemmon collaborated once again in the sequel “The Odd Couple II” (1998), which was directed by Howard Deutch. The same year, Matthau also starred as Frank Walsh in the CBS television movie “The Marriage Fool,” opposite Carol Burnett and John Stamos.

Prior to his death, Matthau played the father of Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow in the dramatic comedy “Hanging Up” (2000), which was directed by Keaton and scripted by Nora and Delia Ephron. The film earned negative reviews from critics and was a flop at the box office.

“’Get out of show business.’ It's the best advice I ever got because I'm so stubborn that if someone would tell me that, I would stay in it to the bitter end.” Walter Matthau


  • American Comedy: Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy, 1997

  • ShoWest Convention: Lifetime Achievement Award, 1993

  • Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical/Comedy, “The Sunshine Boys,” 1976

  • David di Donatello: David, Best Foreign Actor (Migliore Attore Straniero), “The Front Page,” 1975

  • BAFTA Film: Best Actor, “Charley Varrick,” 1974

  • BAFTA Film: Best Actor, “Pete 'n' Tillie,” 1974

  • Kansas City Film Critics Circle (KCFCC): Best Actor, “Kotch,” 1972

  • Laurel: Golden Laurel, Male Comedy Performance, “The Odd Couple,” 1968

  • Oscar: Best Actor in a Supporting Role, “The Fortune Cookie,” 1967

  • Kansas City Film Critics Circle (KCFCC): Best Supporting Actor, “The Fortune Cookie,” 1967

  • Laurel: Golden Laurel, Male Supporting Performance, “The Fortune Cookie,” 1967

  • Tony: Best Actor (Dramatic), “The Odd Couple,” 1965

  • Tony: Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic), “A Shot in the Dark,” 1962

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