Grouchy Old Man Matthau Mourned
- By Dan Whitcomb
- Jul. 07 2000 00:00
LOS ANGELES -- Academy Award-winning actor Walter Matthau, whose hangdog looks and grouchy, slouchy demeanor transformed him from an early player of straight-on toughs and bad guys into one of America's best-loved comic film stars, died on Saturday of a heart attack. He was 79.
Matthau spent five decades in show business, appearing in more than 60 films, winning his Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1966's "The Fortune Cookie" and later two best-actor nominations. He won a Tony Award for his stage work in "A Shot in the Dark."
But Matthau was best known for playing perpetually cranky and unkempt sportswriter Oscar Madison opposite Jack Lemmon's fastidious Felix Unger in 1968's "The Odd Couple."
Matthau would later star with Lemmon in "Grumpy Old Men," "Grumpier Old Men," "Buddy Buddy" and "The Front Page" in one of Hollywood's best-loved partnerships.
Matthau once said that with a face like his, he was destined to be a villain or a comic. In addition to his laconic manner and cynical, bemused expressions, Matthau had a face more than one writer compared to an unmade bed. Matthau saw it as a strength that set him apart in a Hollywood awash in a sea of glamour.
"I don't look like an actor," he said. "I could be anyone from a toilet attendant to a business executive. Most people look at me on the street and say, 'Who the hell is that guy? Was I in the army with him?'"
Matthau, who jokingly called himself "the Ukrainian Cary Grant," was born Walter Matuschanskavasky on Oct. 1, 1920, to poor Russian-Jewish parents. He grew up on the Lower East Side of New York, where "you learn a lot about life, your facial muscles get workouts and never forget, and that can serve you well as an actor."