October 1, 1920, New York – July 1, 2000 Los Angeles
Walter Matthau was an American actor known for his rumpled face, nasal bray, and razor-sharp timing.
Born into a family of Jewish-Russian immigrants, he was compelled to work at a very early age. By the time he was 11, he was employed at the concession stand in a Lower East Side Yiddish theatre. To pick up extra money, he began playing bit roles, making his debut as an 80-year-old woman in a crowd scene. After high school, he held down a variety of jobs, but his heart remained in the theatre. During World War II, he served with distinction under the command of Colonel James Stewart.
Upon his return he attended the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop. In 1946 he made his first professional appearance, and within two years he was acting on Broadway, playing two roles and understudying seven characters in Anne of the Thousand Days.
Working steadily as a character actor on the stage and on television in the early 1950s, he achieved leading-man status in the Broadway comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1955). That same year, he appeared in his first film, The Kentuckian.
The Kentuckian (1955)
Shortly after costarring with Elvis Presley in King Creole (1958), he directed his only film, the B-grade melodrama Gangster Story (1959).
Gangster Story (1959)
Matthau’s big break came in 1965, when he was cast opposite Art Carney in Neil Simon’s hit Broadway comedy The Odd Couple. The tailor-made role of congenital slob Oscar Madison transformed Matthau into a major star, earning him a Tony Award and forever lifting him out of the supporting-player category.
The Odd Couple (1968) Excerpt
He won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the silver-tongued shyster “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich in Billy Wilder’s trenchant comedy The Fortune Cookie (1966). This film represented the first of his many felicitous teamings with Jack Lemmon, including the 1968 movie version of The Odd Couple, a 1974 theatrical revival of Juno and the Paycock, and the riotous Grumpy Old Men films of the 1990s.
Grumpy Old Men (1993)
Matthau also received Oscar nominations for Kotch (1971; directed by Lemmon) and The Sunshine Boys (1975), another collaboration with Neil Simon…
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