Specializing in playing shambling, cantankerous cynics, Walter Matthau, with his jowly features, slightly stooped posture, and seedy, rumpled demeanor, looked as if he would be more at home as a laborer or small-time insurance salesman than as a popular movie star equally adept at drama and comedy. An actor who virtually put a trademark on cantankerous behavior, Matthau was a staple of the American cinema for almost four decades.
The son of poor Jewish-Russian immigrants, Matthau was born on October 1, 1920, in New York City and raised in a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. His introduction to acting came during his occasional employment at the Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, where he sold soda pops during intermission for 50 cents per show. Following WWII service as an Air Force radioman and gunner, Matthau studied acting at the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop. Experience with summer stock led to his first Broadway appearances in the 1940s, and at the age of 28 he got his first break serving as the understudy to Rex Harrison's character in the Broadway drama Anne of a Thousand Days.
After having his first major Broadway success with A Shot in the Dark, Matthau began working on the screen, usually in small supporting roles that cast him as thugs, villains, and louts in such films as The Kentuckian (1955) and King Creole (1958). Only occasionally did he get to play more sympathetic roles in films such as Lonely Are the Brave (1962). In 1959, he tried his hand at directing with Gangster Story. In addition to his stage and feature-film work, Matthau appeared in a number of television shows.
Just when it seemed that he was to be permanently relegated to playing supporting and dark character roles on stage and screen, Matthau won the part of irretrievably slavish sportswriter Oscar Madison in the first Broadway production of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple (1965). Simon wrote the role especially for Matthau, and the show made both the playwright and the actor major stars. In film, Matthau played his first comic role (for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) in Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie (1966).
The film also marked the first of many times that Matthau would be paired with Jack Lemmon. The unmistakable chemistry at play between the well-mannered, erudite Lemmon and the sharp-tongued, earthy Matthau exploded when they were paired onscreen, and was on particularly brilliant display in the hit film version of The Odd Couple (1967). Good friends with Lemmon both onscreen and off, Matthau starred in his directorial debut, Kotch (1971), and starred alongside him in The Front Page (1974) and Buddy Buddy, both of which did little for Matthau and Lemmon's careers. As a duo, the two again found success when they played two coots who were too busy feuding to realize that they were best friends in Grumpy Old Men (1993). They reprised their roles in a 1995 sequel and also appeared together in The Grass Harp (1995), Out to Sea (1997), and 1998's The Odd Couple II.
On his own, Matthau continued developing his comically cynical persona in such worthy ventures as Plaza Suite (1971), California Suite (1978), and especially The Sunshine Boys (1975), in which he was paired with George Burns. He proved ridiculously endearing as a grizzled, broken-down, beer-swilling little league coach with a marshmallow heart in The Bad News Bears (1976), and further expressed his comic persona in such comedies as 1993's Dennis the Menace, in which he played the cantankerous Mr. Wilson, and the romantic comedy I.Q. (1994), which cast him as Albert Einstein.
Though many of his roles were of the comic variety, Matthau occasionally returned to his dramatic roots with ventures such as the crime thriller Charley Varrick (1973) and The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 (1974). In addition to his work in feature films, Matthau also continued to make occasional appearances in made-for-television movies, one of which, Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love (1991), was directed by his son Charles Matthau.
Matthau, who had been plagued with health problems throughout much of his adult life, died of a heart attack at the age of 79 on July 1, 2000. The last film of his long and prolific career was Diane Keaton's Hanging Up (2000), a family comedy-drama that cast the actor as the ailing father of three bickering daughters (Lisa Kudrow, Meg Ryan, and Keaton). Coincidentally, when Matthau was hospitalized for an undisclosed condition in April of the same year, he shared a hospital room with none other than longtime friend and director Billy Wilder.