||"Pernicious nonsense! Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a
year. They ought to have them, too." -- Parnell, Repo Man|
The Curmudgeon's HeroWalter Matthau Remembered
(July 5, 2000) I just got back into Carver Point this morning from my annual July 4th fishing trip when I heard the news that Walter Matthau had passed away. Various news reports had hinted at sundry ailments in recent months, so it shouldn't have been a surprise. But I guess I somehow thought he'd live forever.
I found myself feeling a bit more sad than I would've expected, though, because Walter was in the midst of a career renaissance. The Grumpy Old Men series had sparked the kindling under a career that many had written off as "winding down." And, looking back, he was not just another actor in the machine. It takes a special talent to create as many memorable characters as Walter did, because, honestly, to look at him, you would've never pegged him as a "Movie Star."
But it was that look that made him so wonderful. He had a sleepy basset hound face that was as expressive as an artists' brush. His voice could boom, it could whisper, and it could laugh. His arms swung lanky when he walked, almost like an aging Shaggy from Scooby Doo. There's an old phrase used to say someone looks surprised - "his face dropped." Walter could actually do that. He could be in full swing, happy and smiling, and, boom, he would react to something and that face would fall like a brick, straight into anger, or disappointment, or just confusion.
If there's a need for me to brag on the comedic talents of the man, just think on some of the films he has been in. The Odd Couple. Cactus Flower. Hopscotch. I'm Not Rappaport. The Fortune Cookie. The Sunshine Boys. House Calls. The Front Page. He even managed to become a cult hero among Little League coaches with The Bad News Bears, a film that still makes me laugh, despite how its dated feel. The picture of Walter Matthau and a team of ball players, all crammed into a trashy ragtop convertible, him sucking on a can of beer and looking like he could use a nap, well, it's one of the images I like the most about the man. Again, he was just one of us, a regular guy who figured he'd coach a Little League team, not realizing for a minute what a colossal pain it was going to be.
I know he was known mainly for comedy, and he was indeed a genius at it, but Matthau has also done some fine dramatic work that few tend to remember. The tense nuclear thriller Fail Safe benefited from one such performance, and his work in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three set the stage for actors playing cops for years. Even in westerns, like Lonely Are The Brave, you'd think he would be out of place, but he fit in perfectly. One of the best performances of his career, as the title character in Kotch, was directed by the man who probably knew him better than anyone, his good friend, Jack Lemmon. It was a bold move to play an old man, one who was near the end of his days, but Lemmon convinced Matthau to do the part, and it became one of his plumb performances.
You might think Matthau worked mainly with people like Jack Lemmon, and, to a greater extent, Neil Simon. It's true, his name is almost synonymous with Simon's films and plays, and, yes, whenever he teamed with Lemmon it was a thing of beauty. But Walter worked with the absolute best in the business throughout his career: George Burns, Henry Fonda, Glenda Jackson, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams, Kirk Douglas, Kevin Costner -- I guess a 50-year career puts you in some pretty prime company. Directors ranging from Oliver Stone to Billy Wilder, from Sidney Lumet to Martin Ritt, they all knew that Walter was the right man for the job.
It's a hard thing to know how much someone will be missed until they actually go. And, then, it's too late to let them know. Walter, we'll miss you. More than you'll ever know....
Get "reel" soon!
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