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‘The Odd Couple’ Star Walter Matthau Was a Heavy Smoker & Gambler - A Heart Scare Reformed Him

Junie Sihlangu
Nov 08, 2021
02:01 P.M.

Walter Matthau was a famous actor well-known for starring in films like "Grumpy Old Men." However, his personal life was filled with struggles and challenges that led him to reform his ways.


Walter Jake Matthow, known as Walter Matthau, was born in Manhattan, New York City, on October 1, 1920. His Russian Jewish father, Milton, was from Kyiv, Ukraine, and worked as an electrician and peddler.

Rose, the actor's mother, was a Lithuanian immigrant who earned a living as a seamstress who worked on ladies' underwear. His father was rarely home leading to Matthau not being able to spend much time with him.

Walter Matthau on the film still from 1968's "The Odd Couple" and him on April 2, 1998, at the Mann's Chinese Theatre Forecourt in Hollywood, California | Photos: John Springer Collection/CORBIS & Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Walter Matthau on the film still from 1968's "The Odd Couple" and him on April 2, 1998, at the Mann's Chinese Theatre Forecourt in Hollywood, California | Photos: John Springer Collection/CORBIS & Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

As a boy, the future famous actor attended a Jewish non-profit sleep-away camp. He also participated in Surprise Lake Camp and got his schooling done at Seward Park High School.

Matthau and his family often needed to move because of failure to pay their rent due to how poor they were. The boy faced conflict at school and learned how to earn a living from a very young age.



In junior high school, Matthau once got into a fight with a boy named Rocco Barbella. He won it and broke Barbella's nose, but years later, he became a World Heavy Weight boxing champion known as Rocky Graziano.

Walter Matthau at the 24th Annual Tony Awards on March 06, 1970 | Photo: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Walter Matthau at the 24th Annual Tony Awards on March 06, 1970 | Photo: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

At age 11, he started earning his first money by selling ice cream and soda pop in Jewish theatres on Second Avenue. By 15, he was over 6 feet tall. He later got walk-on jobs where he was paid 50 cents a night.

After graduating from high school, the future star worked various jobs like dipping picture frames in a gold plating solution and chopping down trees in Montana. He later enlisted in the army.



In WWI, he served in the European heavy bomber division of the Air Corps as a radio cryptographer. When he returned, Matthau studied at New York's Dramatic School for Social Research under the G. I. Bill of Rights.

His Broadway acting debut was in 1948 in "Anne of the Thousand Days." He then starred in shows that weren't successful until he landed himself in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"


Matthau's stage work for 1962's "A Shot in the Dark" and his feature in 1965's "The Odd Couple" won him two Tony Awards. In 1952, the star got to feature in the pilot of "Mister Peepers."


His movie debut came in 1953 when he starred in "The Kentuckian." He later found success in 1957's "A Face in the Crowd" alongside big stars like Patricia Neal and Andy Griffith.


In 1959, he received an Oscar Award nomination for "Once More with Feeling," and a few years later, in 1966, he won the award for "The Fortune Cookie." He starred opposite Kirk Douglas in 1962's "Lonely Are the Brave."


The show became a television classic but without Matthau. The producer, Ed Feldman, dismissed him because of the comedic aspect of the series, thinking the actor didn't possess what it took.



Matthau proved Feldman wrong when he starred and nailed his comedic role on "The Odd Couple." He even featured in the 1993 sequel, "Grumpy Old Men," and then 1995's "Grumpier Old Men."

Some of the star's other notable roles that he appeared in were the comedy "Dennis the Menace" in 1993, "The Sunshine Boys" in 1975, and "I'm Not Rappaport" in 1996.


From the 1970s, Matthau struggled with recurring health problems but pushed his acting career. He starred in movies like 1976's "The Bad News Bears," 1981's "First Monday in October," and 1993's "Dennis the Menace."

In 1995, he featured in "The Grass Harp," which was directed by his son Charlie Matthau. His last film was directed by the famous actress Diane Keaton titled "Hanging Up" and was released in 2000."



In this movie, the star challenged himself by starring in Don Siegel's "Charley Varrick" in 1973. He starred as a bank-robbing serial killer, which showed off his dark side, with Jacqueline Scott, who played his wife, Nadine.


Matthau got married twice in his life, with his first wife being Grace Geraldine Johnson. The couple was married in1948 until their divorce in 1958, and they had two children, a son David and a daughter Jenny.


His second wife was Carol Grace, and they tied the knot in 1959 and remained together until his death. Charles was the child from that marriage, but Grace also had a daughter from a previous marriage.

In 1976, he [Walter Matthau] underwent heart bypass surgery…



Besides having an obsession with gambling, Matthau suffered a severe heart attack in 1966. His doctor told him it had been brought on by his lack of exercise, heavy smoking, and gambling addiction.

The incident reformed him, and he started walking often, stopped smoking, and allegedly became a moderate gambler. Once during a two-week period, the star bet and lost a whopping $183,000!


The actor bet on spring-training baseball games and spent six years trying to pay off his debt to an underworld loan shark. Speaking about his lifestyle change after the heart attack, Matthau said:

''It makes you think about what's important. I feel as though I've been given a second life, one better than the old one.''


In 1976, he underwent heart bypass surgery, and in 1999 he was hospitalized for two months with pneumonia. At 71, on July 1, 2000, Matthau passed away from a heart attack in Santa Monica, California.

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