He was born in New York City, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. There is a persistent rumor that his birth name was Matuschanskayasky , which is false, as are the rumors that his name was Matashansky or Matansky, or any of the other reported names. In truth– as reported by the authors of Matthau: A Life, Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg–along with Walter's son, Charles Matthau–Walter was a teller of tall tales. In his youth, he found the joy of embellishment lifted a story (and the listener) to such enjoyable heights, that he could not resist trying to pass off the most bogus of information, just to see who was gullible enough to believe it.
He told many stories to many reputable people– including the Social Security Administration. When he registered for a number, he was amazed that they only wanted him to write his name, and offer no proof of his identity. So, as another of his traditional goofs, he wrote that his true name was "Walter Foghorn Matthau."
His true name, as records from his youth prove, was Walter John Matthow. However, he was also called "Jake," so he occasionally signed his name as "Walter Jake Matthow." When, as a young man, he began acting in the Yiddish theatre in New York, he decided to change the spelling of his name. He believed that "Matthow" looked too brash and crude, and opted for the "more-elegant" spelling of "Matthau," and kept it for the rest of his life.
Matthau served with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He attained the rank of Staff Sergeant and became interested in acting. He often joked that his best early review came in a play he did where he posed as a derelict. One reviewer said, "The others just looked like actors in make-up, Walter Matthau really looks like a skid row bum!" Matthau was a respected stage actor for years in such fare as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and A Shot In The Dark.
In 1955, he made his motion picture debut as a whip-wielding bad guy in The Kentuckian opposite Kirk Douglas. He appeared in many movies after this as a villain such as the 1958 King Creole (where he is beaten up by Elvis Presley). That same year, he made a western called Ride A Crooked Trail with Audie Murphy. Matthau also directed a low budget 1960 movie called The Gangster Story. In 1962, he won acclaim as a sympathetic sheriff in Lonely Are the Brave. He also played the bad guy in Charade, which starred Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.
In addition to his busy movie and stage schedule, Matthau made many television appearances in live TV plays. Although he was constantly working, it seemed that the fact that he was not handsome in the traditional sense would keep him from being a top star.
Success came late for Matthau. When he was age 45, in 1965, Neil Simon cast him in the hit play The Odd Couple opposite Art Carney. It was also during this time that Matthau nearly died of a heart attack. In 1966, he again achieved glory as a shady lawyer opposite future friend and frequent co-star, actor Jack Lemmon, in The Fortune Cookie.
He won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for that movie, and also made a memorable acceptance speech. He was visibly banged up, having been involved in an auto accident shortly before the awards show. He started out with a joke about having "fallen off his bicycle," then scolded nominated actors who were perfectly healthy and had not bothered to come to the ceremony, especially three of the other four major award winners: Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis and Paul Scofield.
Matthau had two wives, Grace Geraldine Johnson (1948-1958), and Carol Marcus (August 21,1959 until his death on July 1, 2000). He and Grace had two children, Jennifer Matthau and David Matthau. He and Carol had one son, Charles Matthau. His grandchildren include William Matthau and Emily Roman.
The "Matuschanskayasky" name rumor culminated with the release of 1974's Earthquake. The director, Mark Robson, came to Matthau and asked him to play the starring role in the movie. Matthau was uninterested and rejected the part, as he did not want to have a heavy presence in such a movie. However, Robson persisted and pleaded with Matthau to take a part– any part. So, Matthau agreed to take the small part of "The Drunk." However, after viewing the pre-screening, he was furious. The movie featured his "Drunk" character so prominently that he appeared to be a feature player opposite Charlton Heston. It was already made, and there was no editing it by this point. However, when it came time to insert the credits, Walter reached into his old bag of tricks and pulled out a whopper: He instructed the credits writer to credit him with his "birth name," and gave it as the ridiculously long name, "Matuschanskayasky," thereby preventing the famous name "Walter Matthau" from being used on promotional products.
Matthau and Lemmon became lifelong friends after making The Fortune Cookie and in an amazing act of teamwork made a total of ten movies together, including the movie version of The Odd Couple (with Lemmon playing the Art Carney role) and the popular 1993 hit Grumpy Old Men, and its sequel Grumpier Old Men with Sophia Loren.
Matthau's tall tale about his last name is still listed as gospel in the "Original Names of Selected Entertainers" section of The World Almanac, including the edition published in the fall of 2004.
Walter Matthau died of full cardiac arrest in Santa Monica, California at the age of 79. He is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. Almost exactly one year later, Jack Lemmon, his old pal and frequent co-star, was also buried at the cemetery, after dying from cancer.
After Matthau's death, Lemmon as well as other friends and relatives appeared on Larry King Live in an hour of tribute and remembrance. Poignantly, many of those same people appeared on the show one year later, reminiscing about Lemmon.
- Atomic Attack (1950) (short subject)
- The Kentuckian (1955)
- The Indian Fighter (1955)
- Bigger Than Life (1956)
- A Face in the Crowd (1957)
- Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957)
- King Creole (1958)
- Voice in the Mirror (1958)
- Ride a Crooked Trail (1958)
- Onionhead (1958)
- Gangster Story (1960) (also director)
- Strangers When We Meet (1960)
- Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
- Who's Got the Action? (1962)
- Island of Love (1963)
- Charade (1963)
- Ensign Pulver (1964)
- Fail-Safe (1964)
- Goodbye Charlie (1964)
- Mirage (1965)
- The Fortune Cookie (1966)
- A Guide for the Married Man (1967)
- The Odd Couple (1968)
- The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968)
- Candy (1968)
- Hello, Dolly! (1969)
- Cactus Flower (1969)
- A New Leaf (1971)
- Plaza Suite (1971)
- Kotch (1971)
- Pete 'n' Tillie (1972)
- The Laughing Policeman (1973)
- Charley Varrick (1973)
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
- Earthquake (1974) (credited as "Walter Matuschanskayasky")
- The Front Page (1974)
- The Lion Roars Again (1975) (short subject)
- The Gentleman Tramp (1975) (documentary)
- The Sunshine Boys (1975)
- The Bad News Bears (1976)
- Casey's Shadow (1978)
- House Calls (1978)
- California Suite (1978)
- Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man (1980) (documentary)
- Little Miss Marker (1980)
- Hopscotch (1980)
- First Monday in October (1981)
- Buddy Buddy (1981)
- I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982)
- The Survivors (1983)
- Movers & Shakers (1985)
- Pirates (1986)
- Il piccolo diavolo (1988)
- The Couch Trip (1988)
- JFK (1991) as Senator Russell B. Long
- Beyond 'JFK': The Question of Conspiracy (1992) (documentary)
- Dennis the Menace (1993)
- Grumpy Old Men (1993)
- I.Q. (1994)
- The Grass Harp (1995)
- Grumpier Old Men (1995)
- I'm Not Rappaport (1996)
- Out to Sea (1997)
- The Odd Couple II (1998)
- The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998) (documentary)
- Hanging Up (2000)
- Juno and the Paycock (1960)
- Tallahassee 7000 (cast member in 1961)
- Awake and Sing! (1972)
- Actor (1978)
- The Stingiest Man in Town (1978) (voice)
- The Incident (1990)
- Mr. Lambert Remembers Love (1991)
- Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore (1992)
- Incident in a Small Town (1994)
- The Marriage Fool (1998)
- Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) (replacement)
- The Liar (1950)
- Twilight Walk (1951)
- Fancy Meeting You Again (1952)
- One Bright Day (1952)
- In Any Language (1952)
- The Grey-Eyed People (1952)
- The Ladies of the Corridor (1953)
- The Burning Glass (1953)
- Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (1955)
- Once More, with Feeling! (1958)
- Once There Was a Russian (1961)
- A Shot in the Dark (1961)
- My Mother, My Father and Me (1963)
- The Odd Couple (1965)
- Official Walter Matthau Website (run by his son, Charles)
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- Humorous Quotes
- Walter Matthau at Find a Grave