Remembering Actor Walter Matthau – Interesting Facts About 'The Odd Couple' Actor's Life and Death

Walter Matthau established his career on television, but behind the scenes, he led a full life. The actor passed away two decades ago and gave us a legacy we'll never forget.

Born on October 1, 1920, Walter Matthew was the son of a Russian immigrant, Jewish peddler father and a seamstress mother from Lithuania.

His dad, an electrician, was rarely at home and so didn't spend much time with his son. However, Matthau went to camps including Surprise Lake Camp and a Jewish non-profit camp.

EARLY LIFE AND WORK

The poor family would often have to move due to the inability to pay rent. At school, Matthau once got into a fight that he won after breaking his opponent's nose. 

The boy went on to become World Heavy Weight boxing champion, Rocky Graziano. As for Matthau, he got his start in money-making by selling ice cream and soda pop at Jewish theatres. 

He would attend Seward Park High School. Afterward, he worked odd jobs like tree-chopping in Montana and picture frame dipping to create gold plates. 

WAR TIME AND CAREER START

As a young man, Matthau enlisted in the Air Corps to work as a radio cryptographer during World War II. He then studied at the Dramatic School for Social Research in New York. 

In 1948, Matthau debuted on Broadway in "Anne of the Thousand Days." He then acted in numerous failed plays before landing a hit in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" 

He landed a part in the pilot of 1952's "Mister Peepers." Then, in 1953, he landed his first film role in "The Kentuckian." It flopped. However, Matthau found success with 1957's "A Face in the Crowd" alongside Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal. 

ALMOST LANDING A BIG ROLE 

In 1959, he received an Oscar nomination for "Once More with Feeling" and came out as the Oscar winner for "The Fortune Winner." He then starred opposite the legendary Kirk Douglas in 1962's "Lonely Are the Brave."

His portfolio grew with big names like Audrey Hepburn who he worked with in 1963's "Charade." Two years later, Bernie Fein put Matthau up for the role of Hogan in the new show, "Hogan's Heroes." 

The 1965 show would become a tv classic, but not with Matthau as the lead. Producer Ed Feldman dismissed the actor because of the comedic aspect of the series, thinking Matthau didn't have what it takes.

HIS BIGGEST ROLES

He was proven wrong as Matthau's most well-known role, "The Odd Couple" was comedic gold. Matthau and Jack Lemmon even garnered a sequel, "Grumpy Old Men," in 1993, and "Grumpier Old Men" in 1995. 

The latter would be the final role of fellow actor Burgess Meredith, who passed away from complications of Alzheimer's disease in September 1997. Throughout the show, his symptoms inhibited him but his talent shown through. 

"Grumpier Old Men" was the eighth movie that Matthau and Lemmon did together — out of ten. Lemmon died
in 2001 and left behind a son who looks just like him. He also has a daughter. Both his children love acting. 
A photo of actor Jack Lemmon from 2002. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

A photo of actor Jack Lemmon from 2002. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Other notable roles that Matthau starred in were 1993's comedy "Dennis the Menace," 1975's "The Sunshine Boys," and 1996's "I'm Not Rappaport." 

PERSONAL LIFE AND DEATH

In his personal life, Matthau was married twice: First to Grace Geraldine Johnson from 1948 to 1958. The pair had two children. He married Carol Grace in 1959 and remained with her until his death.

Matthau passed away at 71 from a heart attack in Santa Monica, California on July 1, 2000. He left behind his wife and kids, and a slew of screen work that film lovers will continue to appreciate. 

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