Walter Matthau worked steadily in Hollywood but he didn’t become a star until he worked with Billy Wilder and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. After that, his career shifted in a higher gear. And after he played Oscar Madison on screen, he was a leading man. He was 48 years old.
His career up to that point had comprised some television work and many supporting parts in films, including his teaming with Jack Lemmon in Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. He also suffered a heart attack.
Some of his supporting roles showed what a fine actor he was. Professor Groeteschele in Fail Safe, who paints the picture for nuclear war; a very bad man in Charade; the sheriff in Lonely Are the Brave, Ted Caselle in Mirage, and Andrew Johnson in the television presentation of Profiles in Courage.
Matthau, with his hound dog looks, didn’t exactly scream handsome leading man. What he lacked in Robert Redford looks, he made up for in warmth and charm. The screen loved him in ways other A List actors would be envious. In films that followed The Odd Couple, he played opposite an eligible bachelor to Ingrid Bergman in Cactus Flower, a desperate bachelor to Elaine May in her film A New Leaf, a husband having an affair with a younger woman in Plaza Suite, and another eligible bachelor to Carol Burnett in Pete ‘n’ Tillie. If these films don’t say romantic lead, the box office did.
Matthau had cut his teeth in mostly dramas, although his stage work established his ability handle comedy. In the 1970s, Matthau had a decade of films other actors would envy. He started the decade in dramas but finished up strong comedies. When he finished the decade, he was sixty years old, and he was a long way from being done.
A closer look at he films of the 1970s.
A New Leaf. Matthau plays a cad, who only wants to marry to have a source of financial support. He picks a backward and timid botany professor to marry, which they do. After
marriage he thinks about how to do away with her, then has a change of heart after she does something that impresses even him. The characters are not very appealing but Matthau does it with style. A film that did not perform well at the box office and disappeared from view.
Plaza Suite. The film has several stories, with Matthau and Maureen Stapleton as a long married couple who attempt to re-ignite the romance in their marriage. A high profile role with lots of smart Neil Simon lines. High visibility project and a nice payday. Nice, just not great.
Kotch. His friend Jack Lemmon decided to direct a film and picked Matthau to star in it. It was the only film Lemmon directed, although it co-starred his wife, and he made it for his own company. Matthau played an elderly man who runs away to avoid going to a nursing home and strikes up a friendship with a pregnant teenage girl. It was not a big hit but it made a little money and gave Matthau a chance to work with his friend.
Pete ‘n’ Tillie. A low-key film with Carol Burnett, about two people who have a longtime relationship, endure tragedy, part, and eventually come back together. Carol Burnett in her first dramatic film role, has the meatier role, though Matthau provides a strong role as a guy with a lot of flaws.
Charley Varrick. My personal favorite. A gritty crime drama, directed with style by veteran Don Siegel. The film is often called “intelligent” because it challenges and entertains the audience. Siegel packs the film with great character actors who excel in bringing something original to their screen time. Matthau turns in a restrained performance but there is a pulse of emotion beating underneath. He plays the everyman, but knows when to turn on the charm and separate from the pack. The film is said to have been written for Clint Eastwood, which makes sense given the writing team and the director; I’m glad he turned it down and Matthau picked it up.
The Laughing Policeman. Matthau plays another detective, one with a failing marriage and an old case that is gnawing at him. The film takes place in swinging San Francisco with many unusual characters. The film packs a certain dark realism. The Matthau character is anything but laughing, he seems trapped by the past, unable to move forward or deal with his own life. The film has grit, style and a fine supporting cast.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. A crime caper with lots of actors. Matthau has a starring role but very little to do. He isn’t required to do much acting, just follow the story, which is a convincing one. He is the lead detective in charge of the hijacking, and occasionally gets to break out of his hangdog manner.
The Front Page. He re-teams with Lemmon in a remake of a 1928 play. Matthau is a conniving newspaper editor who will say and do anything to keep his best reporter (Lemmon) on the job. The movie is a rapid-fire succession of zany characters and tripping dialogue. It moves at breakneck speed, so hang on. Matthau plays a character similar to his Academy Award winning character in The Fortune Cookie. He is particularly good in these unscrupulous character roles.
The Sunshine Boys. The story goes that Jack Benny was supposed to team with Walter Matthau in this film. Benny, unfortunately was diagnosed with cancer and his health faded. In stepped his close friend George Burns, who turned into a movie star and sex symbol, and win the Best Supporting Academy Award. Matthau took over the role offered to Red Skelton. This is Neil Simon at his peak, written for the stage and adapted as film. Sentimental but hits on the right notes. Matthau was nominated for Best Actor.
The Bad News Bears. A signature role from Matthau who seems to have as much fun in the role as the audience watching. Matthau plays a former minor league pitcher who now cleans pool for a living, when he isn’t drinking. Matthau rises above what could have been a sad character to give it a charm as he evolved to reclaim his own dignity as the end of the film. Matthau doesn’t try to be the star of the film. He may be standing at the helm but the wind is in command, just like the Bears.
Casey’s Shadow. The weakest of his films, a formula story about horse racing. Not much surprise here. Not a bad film, directed by Martin Ritt and produced by powerhouse Ray Stark, it has charm but a disappointment after much stronger projects.
House Calls. Matthau plays another eligible bachelor, this time a doctor who after playing the field, settles into a relationship. This is his first pairing with Glenda Jackson, who keeps him on his toes. The film has its charm and a few dramatic tones thrown in, but mostly it is the paring of the Matthau and Jackson that do the heavy lifting. At age 58, he was still a lady’s man, although the lady’s were getting older.
California Suite. Another Neil Simon film, and it wouldn’t be his last. At this point, Simon was writing by numbers, formula screenplays designed to tug at the heart and maybe get a tear, but empty on originality. The film has many stars and some amusing moments but like eating a bag of pretzels, you’re full but there is no nutritional value.
Matthau’s career would go through a few turns in the next twenty years, as he teamed with a variety of co-stars, moved into television films, and came back to films again, often with Jack Lemmon, to finish out his career.
Matthau rarely appeared to be acting, usually that was reserved for some of his films with Jack Lemmon. In those films he took the bolder, more animated character and let Lemmon do what he did best. Matthau was at his best when he measured his performance and aligned it with the beat of the story. He was great at reacting, what fine actors do. Matthau could appear to be expressionless but his eyes and the wrinkles of his face were very much engaged. He could play broad comedy when a scene called for it but his best performances were not performances, it was playing it like we would and letting his natural reaction shine through. He was Mr. Natural.