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Grumpy Ol' Walter

LOS ANGELES -- I had been told to look for the groove. Grumpy old Walter Matthau has a groove worn into the end of one thumb, a friend said. It has been created over the years by the opposite thumbnail, during basketball games and horse races and anything else Matthau has money on.

"I've made $50 million over the years as a movie star, if you'll pardon the expression, and I've given most of it to the bookies," Matthau was telling me. This was during an interview about his new movie, "Grumpy Old Men" (now playing in Chicago), but we had strayed from the subject.

Was it worth the fifty mil? I asked. Did you get enough entertainment out of it?

"No, I don't get entertainment; I get misery. I'm told from certain schmucks who pass themselves off as psychiatrists that I'm guilty about my success. I'm trying to balance the inner books."

That might be true if you were 28 years old, I said, but aren't you reconciled to your success by now?

"I'm not! I still think I'm 28. I'm 73. I think I'm 28, though, except that I won't get into a fight with anybody because I just had a pacemaker put in. Yeah, sure. I got into a fight the day after I had the pacemaker put in. With a German shepherd. He tried to kill my dog and I was kicking him and I suddenly sunk to the floor, dizzy, about to faint, and the German shepherd's owner took up the task of getting him off my little dog. She started hitting him with her tennis racket. Later I said to her, 'Did you hit him with the strings, or with the wood?' She said, 'The wood.' She finally got him off."

So you're on the floor and she's more concerned with saving your dog than saving you.

"Yeah. After her big dog walks away and sits down panting, she says to me, 'Should I call 911?' I said, 'No, it's OK, Clare. They don't handle dogs.' "

Matthau laughs. The way he laughs is, his eyes crinkle up, and a doubtful sound emerges from a corner of his mouth, as if to say he's not so sure this is all that funny. At the beginning of the interview, he had affixed me with a baleful glare, and asked, "How do you want this? Should I be straight, or funny?"

Actually the glare wasn't that baleful. But Matthau likes lines like that, about affixments, and when you're around him you get into the habit.

"Just you," I told him. "Not straight, not funny."

"In other words, you want lies. Saroyan said, 'She knew the truth but she was looking for something better.' Good line."

The writer William Saroyan. He was married to your wife, Carol.

"Yeah. Twice!"

Is that who he was referring to?


And she found it.

"Oh, yeah! She found a liar she's crazy about."

You must be very happy together.

"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. I like to lay 11-10 on a football game. It's really an even-money shot, with the points. But I lay 11-10 because I know the bookie needs that 5 percent that I give him. Otherwise, he wouldn't be able to make a living and go down to Florida with his family."

Do you still gamble?

"Yeah. But I take it easy now. I bet, maybe, $20 a game." A mournful chortle. "If you believe that, I have a bridge in New York that I'd like to sell you."

So you can attribute much of your success to gambling, and to your wife.

"That's a new way of putting it. And an absolutely accurate way."

Did you make "Grumpy Old Men" primarily because you wanted to work with your buddy Jack Lemmon again, or did the story. . . .

"The only reason I did the movie was to work with Lemmon."

Is it kind of automatic, with you and Lemmon?

"No, I hadn't worked with him for about 10 years. People would send us scripts, but they wouldn't have any wherewithal to do the scripts. They just wanted to use our names to get the script sponsored. And here, John Davis, the producer, comes up with a script - that I wasn't cuckoo about - that he would pay us for. He had the money, he had the studio, he had the makeup men and the costume men and he had it all ready to go! It was a go!

"Now, the only thing was I didn't want to go to Minnesota in the middle of January, so I said to Lemmon, 'Listen, Lemmon, we have to fix this script up a little so let's rewrite it and then we'll say OK. But,' I said, 'maybe we can do this in Hawaii or Florida because one of us is not coming back if we go to Minnesota.' Because in Minnesota it gets so cold that the body wishes to retain the heat; otherwise, you die. In order to retain the heat, the coronary arteries are immediately constricted for retention of heat and as soon as you restrict the coronary arteries, you're subject to a heart attack; you're subject to a stroke; you're subject to double pneumonia. I got all of them.

"Lemmon, nothing happened to him at all. Just once. I stopped the shooting and I went over to the producer and I said, 'Better get him to a hospital; something's wrong with him.' His tongue - it was so cold, it was 40 below zero without the wind-chill factor - his tongue had stuck to his gums. That's how cold it was."

You were hoping to take so long to rewrite this script that it would be April or May.

"That's a good idea, but I didn't think of that. Besides, there was a lot in there about ice fishing, which of course is a winter sport."

In the movie, Matthau and Lemmon play a grumpy old odd couple who have been neighbors for more than 50 years, and fighting most of that time. They can't even remember why they hate each other. Lemmon's father (Burgess Meredith) still has to wade in and pull them apart. Both men are fiercely competitive ice fishermen. When Ann-Margret moves into the neighborhood and starts making eyes at them, they become even more fiercely competitive over her. Getting the girl

"The kid who wrote the screenplay (Mark Steven Johnson) remembered these two old guys, Max Goldman and John Gustafson. I wanted to play John Gustafson and let Lemmon be the Jewish guy, 'cause I figured . . ."

You wanted to get Ann-Margret.

"Yeah, you know, the Christians get the girl and the Jews are funny so I thought it would be a good idea if we switched parts. But they refused. It's like when we were first doing 'The Odd Couple' on Broadway, and I told Neil Simon, 'I don't want to play Oscar Madison, I want to play Felix Unger because Oscar Madison is too easy. He gets all the laughs. Felix Unger is a hard part; that's the part I want to play.' And Neil Simon says, 'Walter, do me a favor, act on your own time.' "

There was some kind of a weird rumor that you had a falling out with Lemmon while you were up there.

"All lies. We were roommates. We had five rooms on the top floor of the Whitney Hotel. It was the penthouse, overlooking the Mississippi River and some abandoned buildings. Actually, the place looked a little bit like I imagined what Auschwitz would have looked like. But we loved it. Sometimes we insulted each other a little, just for fun. That's what the guys do in this picture. They insult each other because they love each other. They don't know how to express love. So they call each other obscenities and profanities."

Did you ever ask yourself why Ann-Margret had to choose between the two of you? Why there wasn't another man in the whole state of Minnesota she could choose?

"I disregard those little loopholes. If I didn't, I would never work. I find loopholes in King Lear. You have to suspend disbelief because you're a worker, you're an actor, you're charming, and it's a lot of beautiful scenery, snow, and Lake Rebecca and the silly little arguments that they have."

You were out there on the ice shooting those scenes?

"Yeah. I was shocked by the fact that they could have a lot of trucks and a lot of people on the lake. Why doesn't it collapse? An amazing thing. One day I fell down and hit my head and shoulders. I was in terrible pain. Lemmon came around and I said to him, 'Get the prop man. He's got a gun. Shoot me, will you? I can't take this pain!' Lemmon said, 'Come on, cut it out, you'll be all right.' I said, `I can't take the pain. Just put a bullet in my head.'

"So Jack is telling this story, and he works it around to, 'I put my rolled-up jacket under his head and I asked Walter if he was comfortable, and he said, 'I make a living.' The oldest joke in the book. Except that Lemmon does it terribly. He's the worst actor. 'I make a living.' Make the guy Jewish! It doesn't sound like a punch line, it sounds like an explanation."

You and Jack have made a lot of pictures together.

"Five, I think. And then he directed me once."

A lot of people would probably forget that you worked together in Oliver Stone's "JFK" (1991).

"Yeah, I didn't even think of that one because we didn't have any scenes together. The most interesting part about making that picture was, I had never seen Kevin Costner before because I'm not a moviegoer. So we were shooting the scene on the airplane, and they had him sitting next to me, but I thought he was a standin. So, I said to him, trying to be pleasant, 'Do you live in New Orleans?' He looked at me and said, 'No, I live in L.A.' He was so indignant that I realized it had to be Kevin Costner."

How did you cover?

"I turned around and said, 'KEVIN, how are you? Are you happy?' hitting his name very hard, to let him know I knew who he was."

You literally didn't know who Kevin Costner was.

"Swear to God. I had enough on my mind during that scene. I was playing Russell Long, the senator from Louisiana. I had 12 speech teachers watching me. All the other passengers on the airplane were speech teachers and every time I got it wrong, one of the speech teachers would jump up and correct it. Finally it came out OK. But I think I sounded like Andy Griffith." Does it affect the way the scene goes when the star realizes that the co-star doesn't know who he is?

"Yeah. He was much better. He was so humble that he failed to act." A chortle. "No, actually, he's a good actor and it didn't bother him at all. The only guy that was ever affected by climatic conditions in his acting was Kirk Douglas. He did a superb job in 'Lonely Are the Brave' (1962) 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."

Didn't you get nominated for that?

"No, it was a couple of years later, for `The Fortune Cookie' (1966). I had a heart attack and people thought I was going to die so they gave me the award to take to my great reward. I won for supporting actor. I wasn't the supporting actor. Lemmon was in the wheelchair; he was the supporting actor." Never fought

Have you ever had an enormous fight with Lemmon where you thought: This is it; we sever our relationship forever?


Not even in the pressure of being tired and working on a movie and. . . .

"I swear to God. Never. But you know, we rarely see each other."

You don't socialize?

"Three times a year. Jack only likes to talk about acting. I hate that. Acting and golf. I'm a diseased man. My disease is gambling. I gamble heavy sums of money and a gambler is really not interested in anything else."

So . . . you won the Oscar in '67, and you've been knocking at death's door for 26 years, and you're still here.

"The trick is to keep working. I ran into Groucho Marx a couple of months before he died. I said, 'Saw your grandson today, Groucho.' He said, 'Where?' I said, 'At the Brentwood Market.' He said, 'What was he doing?' I said, 'He was eating spareribs.' He said, 'Spare the ribs, spoil the child.' That's the Grouch."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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