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Walter Matthau: A laugh-filled life

Walter Matthau, who claimed that "Foghorn" was his middle name, is dead at 79. The beloved actor, whose face was mapped with laugh lines, died of a heart attack early Saturday morning. He was brought into a Santa Monica hospital in cardiac arrest, and pronounced dead at 1:41 a.m. PDT.

It was the kind of end he had long anticipated; he joked about his heart problems, once telephoning his doctor in the middle of an interview to ask, "is coffee a vaso-dilator or a vaso-constrictor? Check it out, will ya? You have the book right on your desk."

"He walks like a wind-up toy," his favorite co-star Jack Lemmon once said. His face was hangdog until it lit up in a smile, and then the sun came out. He always said he didn't look like an actor but like a guy you were in the Army with. He never really looked young. Like Robert Mitchum, he seemed born middle-aged, and if you look at some of his early films, like "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), he already had the creases and the slouch of a race-track tout.

After service in World War II, he did a decade on the stage before beginning to get character roles in the movies. He was friends in those days with Tony Curtis, "who had the good looks," went to Hollywood in 1949 and returned a year later as a star. "He was waiting in Shubert Alley when I came out of a stage door," Matthau told me, "jumping up and down and shouting about how he had made it with Yvonne De Carlo." Matthau didn't have the looks for a young leading man, but as he grew into his face and ungainly frame, he became a character star. Even in his first film. "The Kentuckian" (1955), he was a hard-bitten saloon keeper.

Matthau appeared in some 56 films, and won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1966 for "The Fortune Cookie" ("I'd just had a heart attack," he told me, and they wanted to give me their little award before I went to my great reward.") He was nominated as best actor for "Kotch" (1971), where, at 48, he was able to play a convincing old-timer, and "The Sunshine Boys" (1975), where he stepped in after Jack Benny's death and made the role of an old vaudevillian his own. He starred opposite George Burns, and the two of them went on tour together to promote it, doing an ad lib routine that turned their interviews into a double act.

In comedy he never tried to be funny, and in tragedy he never tried to be sad. He was just this big (6' 3"), shambling, sardonic guy whose dialog had the ease and persuasion of overheard truth. He was ideal as a foil for quick-talkers like Jack Lemmon, and together they made nine movies together. The first was "The Fortune Cookie" (1966). True stardom came with "The Odd Couple" (1968), where he of course was the unkempt sportswriter Oscar Madison to Lemmon's persnickety photographer, Felix Unger. In addition to "The Odd Couple," they also co-starred in "Kotch," which Lemmon directed; the classic Chicago newspaper comedy "The Front Page" (1974); "Buddy Buddy" (1981); "JFK" (1991); "Grumpy Old Men" (1993); "Grumpier Old Men" (1996); and "The Grass Harp" (1996). directed by his son Charlie.

In "JFK," he played Louisiana Senator Russell Long, and had a scene on an airplane where all of the other passengers, he claimed, were speech teachers. He assumed the young man in the seat next to him was an extra, "and I asked him pleasantly, 'Do you live in New Orleans'?" It was Kevin Costner.

Matthau was a favorite actor of two giants of American comedy, director Billy Wilder and playwright Neil Simon. He made three films with Wilder, and starred in the screen versions of five Simon comedies. He recalled meeting Simon for the first time at a New York party. Their conversation, he said, consisted of Simon saying, "You ought to be in my next play," and Matthau replying, "Who are you?"

Later, he said, when they were preparing to film "The Odd Couple," "I told Simon, 'I don't want to play Oscar, I want to play Felix because Oscar is too easy. He gets all the laughs. Felix is a hard part; that's the part I want to play.' And Simon tells me, 'Walter, do me a favor. Act on your own time.' "

Matthau was known as an inveterate gambler, and had a groove worn into one thumb by the nail of the opposite hand during the tension of horse races and basketball games. He told me in 1994 he had lost $50 million in betting over the years. Years earlier, visiting him on the set of Wilder's "Buddy Buddy," I asked him if he still gambled.

"Hardly at all. For big stakes, that is. Of course I gamble, to make the games interesting. But five hundred dollars a game, tops., Or sometimes a thousand. No heart attack bets."

Do you follow basketball pretty closely?

"Pretty closely."

How many games did Indiana lose during the regular season?

"Nine. What scores do you want to know?"

Matthau had the timing of a stand-up comic, but didn't go for punchlines, expressing his humor instead in anecdotes. He and Lemmon had a long-standing shtick about whether or not Matthau had saved Lemmon's life when Jack allegedly choked on a horehound drop in Utah. Their conflicting versions of the story developed over the years into bizarre recitations in which Lemmon recalled turning blue and dropping to his knees while Matthau ignored him, and Matthau recalled performing the Heimlich Maneuver at great pain to himself since he had just had open-heart surgery "and had a chest that looked like a Christmas turkey. " Matthau blamed Lemmon's failure to remember this feat on a lack of oxygen to the brain.

Studio publicists despaired of writing an accurate biography of Matthau, who made up different facts every time he was asked. He once claimed his father was a priest thrown out of the Eastern Orthodox church in czarist Russia for preaching the infallibility of the Pope. Actually, his father was a peddler who left home when Walter was 3, and young Walter Matuchanskayasky, born in 1920 in New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, grew up in poverty on the Lower East Side.

He seemed destined for the theater almost from birth. He was reading Shakespeare at 7, and appearing onstage at 8. He played children in plays in the Yiddish theater district along Second Avenue, went into summer stock in 1946, and got his first Broadway job in 1948. Not surprisingly, he played Nathan Detroit in the 1955 production of "Guys and Dolls."

In the movies. he had a key early role as the sheriff pursuing Kirk Douglas in "Lonely are the Brave" (1962). Even then he was unimpressed by Hollywood royalty, and told me years later: "The only guy that was ever affected by climactic conditions in his acting was Kirk Douglas. He did a superb job in 'Lonely Are the Brave' because we were shooting that picture up at about 12,000 feet and the rarefied atmosphere sapped him of any energy or strength that he had. That was his best performance."

He played a thief in "Charade" (1963), co-starred with Barbra Streisand in "Hello, Dolly!" (1969), was hilarious as a bankrupt millionaire in Elaine May's "A New Leaf" (1971), survived "Earthquake" (1974), made two thrillers the same year ("The Laughing Policeman" and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three"), had a surprise success as a Little League coach in "The Bad News Bears" (1976), played a widowed doctor who simultaneously woos and flees Glenda Jackson in "House Calls" (1978), was perfectly cast as the next-door neighbor Mr. Wilson in "Dennis The Menace" (1993), and played a surprisingly convincing Albert Einstein in "I.Q." (1994).

He and Lemmon were amazed by the success of their "Grumpy Old Men" pictures, which in some ways were a spin-off of "The Odd Couple;" oddly, "The Odd Couple II" was a misfire. Matthau's most recent film was "Hanging Up," released in February. He played a veteran comedy writer, now bedridden, whose final illness was a catalyst for the troubled relationships of his three daughters, played by Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow.

Matthau married first to Grace Geraldine Johnson, by whom he had two children, Jennie and David. His second wife was the actress Carol Marcus, whom he wed in 1959. They had a son, Charlie.

Carol, formerly wed twice to playwright William Saroyan. is a character in her own right. In our 1994 interview, he explained their marital happiness: "I think the secret is to get rid of all your money so you have to keep on working, which my wife and I do very well. We simply get rid of the money. She collects objects. She has 18,427,000 objects in the house. I, on the other hand, give all the money to the bookies."

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