This Day in Jewish History

1920: A Grumpy Old Man Is Born

Walter Matthau built a half-century long career by combining irascibility with irresistible lovability.

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October 1, 1920, is the birthdate of the comic actor Walter Matthau, he of the basset hound eyes, the sourpuss mouth and a sardonic delivery that could make recitation of the phone book sound disdainful. In a career that spanned more than 50 years, he starred in over a dozen plays and more than 60 movies.

Walter John Matthow was born in New York’s Lower East Side. Some sources – including The New York Times, in its obituary for him – suggest that Matthau’s original surname was “Matuschanskayasky,” but the latter was only a gag name he used in the credits of a movie in which he provided a cameo appearance.

Be that as it may, his father was Milton Matthow, a Russian-born electrician, later a process server, who left the family when his younger son was three (there was also an older brother, Henry). His mother was the former Rose Berolsky, an immigrant from Lithuania who worked as a sweatshop seamstress.

He once told an interviewer that growing up poor during the Great Depression was a “dreadful, horrible, stinking nightmare.”

Matthau’s theater career started off modestly, when, at age 11, he began selling snacks in a Yiddish theater on Manhattan’s Second Avenue; later, he was offered bit parts in some of the shows. After graduating Seward Park High School, and doing odd jobs as a forester in Montana and working as a boxing and basketball coach in New York, Matthau enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving in Europe during World War II as a cryptographer and radio operator.

Back home in New York after the war, Matthau used his GI benefits to study acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School. His first Broadway appearance came in 1948, playing a candelabra carrier (and understudy to Rex Harrison) in “Anne of the Thousand Days.” Over the next two decades, he went on to perform in 16 plays, including “Once More with Feeling” (1958, for which he earned a Tony nomination) and “A Shot in the Dark” (1961) and “The Odd Couple” (1965), both of which won him Tonys.

Three years later, Matthau got to reprise his performance as Oscar Madison in the screen version of “The Odd Couple,” written, like the play, by Neil Simon. Oscar is a slobbish, perpetually tardy, cigar-chomping sportswriter who, in order to cover his rent, is forced to take in his friend Felix Unger (played by Art Carney on Broadway). Felix has been thrown out by his wife, who became exasperated by his compulsiveness about cleanliness, punctuality and most everything else.

Making the worst movie ever

In the screen version of “The Odd Couple,” Matthau played opposite Jack Lemmon. It was their second performance in tandem, after the 1966 Billy Wilder comedy “The Fortune Cookie,” which earned Matthau his only Academy Award. In that movie, he played William “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who cooks up a scheme to earn his friend Harry Hinkle, a TV cameraman – and himself – millions, after Hinkle, played by Lemmon, is mildly injured while covering a football game.

In total, Matthau and Lemmon played opposite one another in 10 movies, 11 if you count Lemmon’s cameo appearance as a sleeping bus passenger in the one movie he directed, “Kotch,” in 1971.

Matthau had starring roles in dozens of other films, including “Hello, Dolly,” “Plaza Suite,” “The Bad News Bears,” “Grumpy Old Men” and “Dennis the Menace,” based on the comic strip, in which he portrayed Dennis’ neighbor and nemesis, Mr. Wilson. The roles varied widely, but to each of them he brought something that was uniquely him: a seemingly contradictory blend of sarcasm-laced indifference and irresistible lovability.

Matthau’s final role came in 2000, in “Hanging Up,” written by Delia Ephron and Nora Ephron and directed by Diane Keaton, in which he played a curmudgeonly father whose three daughters are waiting for him to depart this world.

He himself directed one film, “Gangster Story,” in 1960, which he later told an interviewer was “one of the worst films ever made.” Always able to laugh at himself, Matthau at another point described his screen image as that of “a Ukrainian Cary Grant.”

He was married twice, the second time, from 1959 until his death, to Carol Grace Marcus, an actress and writer, who Truman Capote supposedly claimed was the inspiration for the character Holly Golightly in his “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” She and Matthau each brought two children to their marriage, and also had one son together, Charles Matthau, a filmmaker who directed his father in two movies.

Walter Matthau died of a heart attack on July 1, 2000. He was buried, in a traditional Jewish ceremony (“a simple burial in a plain pine casket,” said his son), at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park, in Los Angeles.