Remembering Walter Matthau
Walter Matthau’s greatest strength — the reason he was adored and trusted by audiences — was that the whole business of movies seemed to annoy the bejesus out of him. But while that surly puss made him look like a racetrack tout from Yonkers who had just happened to wander into the camera frame, in reality the actor, who died July 1 of a heart attack at 79, was the staunchest of pros. ”Walter can play Richard III, Fiddler on the Roof, Charley’s Aunt, and The Elephant Man all in one afternoon,” said Billy Wilder, who directed him in three films. ”And in between he can squeeze in a few poker games.” Of the 61 movies in which Matthau appeared, here’s a baker’s dozen of the best.
KING CREOLE (1958)
The young Matthau specialized in greasy, slippery villains of the used-car-salesman type. Here, he’s the gangster foil to rebellious busboy Elvis Presley.
He’s one of a motley gang of treasure seekers who chase widow Audrey Hepburn into the arms of Cary Grant. George Kennedy, James Coburn, and Ned Glass are the other three — but only Matthau’s sly enough to make it to the climax alive.
THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966)
The larcenous actor steals a movie, takes home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and becomes a star. This acidulous Billy Wilder comedy put Matthau and Jack Lemmon together for the first time, too.
THE ODD COUPLE (1968)
He had originated the role of slob’s slob Oscar Madison on Broadway (opposite Art Carney as Felix!), but the movie version of Neil Simon’s classic roommate farce is Matthau’s defining performance.
CACTUS FLOWER (1969)
Here’s how big a star Matthau was in 1969: He could play a womanizing dentist fought over by Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn — and audiences thought it the most natural (and funniest) thing in the world.
A NEW LEAF (1971)
A little-seen delight in which a pampered trust-fund playboy (to quote Pauline Kael: ”Walter Matthau?”) runs out of cash and, with murderous intent, marries a rich klutz (Elaine May, who also wrote and directed).
CHARLEY VARRICK (1973)
Matthau reverted to bad behavior — but this time as the hero — playing an aging thief who inadvertently makes off with a bag of Mafia money in Don Siegel’s tough, sardonic crime caper.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974)
As a detective trying to outsmart vicious subway hijackers, Matthau’s the soul of mid-’70s New York City: rude, unkempt, and foxy as hell.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976)
He always struck us as someone who sided with W.C. Fields on the subject of children — which, in fact, is why Matthau’s turn as the boozy coach of a woeful kids’ baseball team is so richly comic.
HOUSE CALLS (1978)
You could call it The Odd Couple in Love. In a rare romance among the older set, doctor Matthau and prickly-pear patient Glenda Jackson woo and (eventually) win each other.
Hardly anybody saw Roman Polanski’s trouble-plagued comedy — which is a shame, since Matthau gives his last great performance as the shambling, yawping, fishhook-eating Captain Red.
GRUMPY OLD MEN (1993)
Yes, the sex-and-fart humor makes Neil Simon look like Moliere, but thank this movie for introducing Matthau and Lemmon to a new generation. And blame it for The Odd Couple II.
Amid the easy grumpy-old-men paychecks of Matthau’s final years, his performance as a puckish, Cupid-playing Albert Einstein stands — okay, stoops — tall. The comedy is mild, but it’s nice to see that the master retains his cosmic timing.