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Interview with Walter Matthau

HOLLYWOOD - It's this great big movie set with a tiny little girl in the middle of it. The set is an extravaganza on the back lot of Universal Studios, and it's supposed to look like a wire room for a bookie operation. It does.

Guys with green eyeshades park their cigars in the corners of their mouths and study the scratch sheets. Bettors and bookies and floozies squint at a big blackboard carrying the results of the last race. The stars in the scene are Walter Matthau and Bob Newhart. They are standing on either side of Sara Stimson, who is wearing a plain brown coat and a floppy little hat and is 6 years old and comes up about to Matthau's knee.

A man with a water mister comes by to spray artificial sweat onto someone's face. Sara makes a grab for the sprayer and tries to squirt Matthau. Then she squirts it into her own mouth: This kid could be any kid if she didn't have the title role in a multimillion-dollar movie called "Little Miss Marker." "Careful!" intones Matthau. "You'll have to go to the bathroom!"

"Don't go putting any ideas into her head," says Walter Bernstein, the writer and director.

"They love each other," says Jennings Lang, who is producing the movie and who is standing over to one side so Sara won't be distracted. Sara might indeed easily be distracted, because she has the impression that Jennings Lang is the Tooth Fairy.

She got that impression shortly after she was chosen to play Miss Marker in the fourth remake of the movie that made Shirley Temple a star back in 1934. Sara, who is dark-haired and dark-eyed and solemn and not a bit like Shirley Temple, won a screen test in San Antonio and got the role in the movie, and on her first day of shooting Jennings Lang sent her a big cookie jar, signing himself the Tooth Fairy.

"The problem," Lang now realizes, "is that a little girl this age shouldn't have too many father figures. She loves Matthau, she loves Bernstein. We don't want too many people on the set that she's trying to please. And she does try. She's such a great little girl..."

The scene was shot, a break was called, and Walter Matthau shuffled over in an incredibly baggy suit. "What Jennings is trying to explain," Matthau said, in that mock-solemn voice that turns ordinary conversations into court cases, "is that when you're working with a kid, you hope you can get through the picture before the kid becomes a professional. She has a sweetness and innocence that's just right. She has a pseudo-vulnerability that's perfect for a comedy. If she had a real vulnerability, of course, it would be terrible."

"We saw all the Professional Kids," Lang sighed.

"Kids who had been pushed from the age of 2 to become movie stars. It was pathetic. Stage mothers will make their kids do anything. The word was out that we were casting for the Shirley Temple role, and here were all these little girls with Shirley Temple curls, and you could see they'd been up all night to have their hair set, and there was a painful look in their eyes. The irony was that we didn't want a girl who looked like Shirley Temple."

Sara Stimson galloped past us on her way to her mother, who was sitting on a folding chair behind the camera. Sara had to go to the bathroom. "You see?" said Matthau.

He looked down and removed an imaginary thread from the sleeve of his suit, which was supposed to make him look like a well-dressed bookie of 1924 who has not changed clothes and this is 1934.

"This suit," he said in wonderment, "cost $600. And there's another one just like it. They have to match it in case something happens to this one. And the Salvation Army didn't have two with the same rumples."

"We shoulda gone to your brother," Jennings Lang said.

"No retail!!!" Matthau shouted. "That's my brother. He owns an Army Surplus in downtown LA. You go in there to buy anything, he shouts, No retail! You want a shirt? I can let you have 500 shirts! One shirt I don't have! With a family like that, no wonder I don't get 'MacBeth.'"

Sara Stimson galloped past in the other direction. She wanted to play on the set, and took a playful grab at the clapboard being held by an assistant director. Matthau regarded her.

"My kid, Charlie," he said, "is a good deal older than Sara. Old enough he wants to be in movies. He sets his sights high. He wants to star as Holden Caulfield in a movie version of 'The Catcher in the Rye.' Son, I advise him, don't you know? Haven't you heard? That book was written by a man named J.D. Salinger who disappeared into the woods and refuses to sell any of his books to the movies! 'So?' says Charlie...maybe he's waiting for the right offer.'

"So I tell Charlie to write Salinger, and if he agrees, I'll go to a studio and try to get the financing. But I warn Charlie I'll have to make a million dollars to be in the picture. Charlie is outraged: 'You'll get a million? You're only playing the father, for chrissakes!' I explain to him: I am a million-dollar actor. Therefore, I get a million dollars. You work for $'re a $40 actor."

He wandered off in search of a Styrofoam cup of coffee. Jennings Lang was meanwhile answering questions about "Little Miss Marker," which is based on the Damon Runyon classic about a little girl who finds herself put up as collateral on a horse bet.

"The original was in 1934, with Shirley Temple, of course, and Adolphe Menjou as the bookie. There was a remake in 1949 called 'Sorrowful Jones,' with Bob Hope. And another remake in 1963 called '40 Pounds of Trouble,' with Tony Curtis, whom is also in this picture. But this picture isn't exactly a remake, since Walter Bernstein started from scratch and rewrote the whole story. Only the basic elements like the little girl remain the same."

"Jennings," said Matthau, returning with two people in tow, "how do you spell coccyx?"

"Spell what?"

While Lang was talking, it turned out, Matthau had found two visitors to the set who identified themselves as Arthur Gelb, the metropolitan editor of the New York Times, and his wife, Barbara, the Eugene O'Neill expert. He had obviously decided that the way to set New York intellectuals at ease was to engage them in a spelling bee.

"Coccyx. You know, you know - your tailbone! Or inchoate. How about sacrilegious...that's easy," he said, pointing to his eyes, "if you remember you have an 'i' on either side, and an 'e' in between. It's even easier if you can learn to think of your nose as an 'e'. I never got any further, you see, than Seward Park High School in Manhattan, or that far, and so, as I have no advanced education, I cultivate these other skills."

"Looks like it's almost time to do the next scene," Lang said.

"All right, all right," Matthau rumbled. "For you I think I have an easy one. What's the capital of Missouri?"

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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