Walter Matthau, the foghorn-voiced movie villain who became a master of crotchety comedy with his Oscar-winning "The Fortune Cookie" and followed with "The Odd Couple," "Grumpy Old Men" and many other hits, died Saturday, July 1, 2000 of a heart attack. He was 79.
Matthau was pronounced dead at 1:42 a.m., shortly after being brought into St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, said hospital spokeswoman Lindi Funston.
Often cast as a would-be con man foiled by life's travails, Matthau bellowed complaints against his tormentors and moved his lean, 6-foot-3 frame in surprising ways.
"Walter walks like a child's windup toy," said his frequent costar, Jack Lemmon.
Matthau's performance as the shyster brother-in-law of Lemmon in "The Fortune Cookie" won him the Academy Award as best supporting actor of 1966.
He was twice nominated for best actor: as the cantankerous oldster in "Kotch," 1971 (directed by Lemmon); and as the feuding vaudeville partner of George Burns in "The Sunshine Boys," 1975.
"The Odd Couple" provided the role that established Matthau's stardom. In 1965 he appeared in New York as the slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison in Neil Simon's play. Art Carney was the fastidious photographer, Felix Unger, who shared an apartment with Madison after both had been divorced.
Matthau repeated the role in the 1968 film, with Lemmon as Felix. They reprised their roles 30 years later in the 1998 film "Odd Couple II."
"Every actor looks all his life for a part that will combine his talents with his personality," Matthau told Time magazine in 1971. "'The Odd Couple' was mine. That was the plutonium I needed. It all started happening after that."
The actor could be as whimsically eccentric in interviews as he was on the screen. Reporters had to exercise caution in separating fact from his flights of fancy.
In responding to a form for Current Biography, he reported that his father had been an Eastern Orthodox priest in czarist Russia who ran afoul with church authorities by preaching the infallibility of the pope. His father was actually a Kiev peddler.
Matthau declared that he had married the former Carol Wellington-Smythe Marcus. His wife was really Carol Marcus, who had been twice married to playwright William Saroyan.
"That's my defense mechanism against pompous and ludicrous questions," Matthau explained. When he filled out his Social Security form in 1937, he listed his middle name as Foghorn. He never corrected it.
Some of the facts about the actor's early life seem accurate. He was born Walter Matthow on Oct. 1, 1920, in New York City to impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrants.
His father left home when Walter was 3. Walter and his older brother, Henry, lived with their mother, a garment worker, in a series of cold-water flats on the Lower East Side.
Young Walter showed a dramatic bent early, reading Shakespeare at 7, and reciting poems in school assemblies at 8. He was introduced to Yiddish plays at 11, when he sold soft drinks at 2nd Avenue theaters. He made occasional appearances onstage at 50 cents a performance.
He was already 6 feet tall at 10 and weighed 90 pounds. "When I drank cherry soda, I looked like a thermometer," he once cracked.
Graduating from Seward Park High School during the Depression, he took government jobs -- as a forester in Montana, gym instructor for the WPA, boxing coach for policemen. In World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served as radio cryptographer in a heavy bomber unit in Europe.
Matthau ended the war a sergeant with six battle stars and a fistful of money from poker winnings. Legends of his gambling followed him throughout his life. While making a TV series in Florida before his movie stardom, he lost $183,000 betting on spring-training baseball games.
The actor himself made no effort to quash the legends and even contributed to them.
In middle age he estimated his lifetime gambling losses at $5 million.
After release from the Air Corps in October 1945, Matthau enrolled in the dramatic workshop at New York's New School. Among his fellow students: Gene Saks, Rod Steiger, Harry Guardino, Tony Curtis. He stayed three years, living on the GI Bill and playing in regional stock during the summer.
Matthau's first Broadway role came at the age of 28 when he was hired as understudy for the role of an 83-year-old English bishop in "Anne of the Thousand Days," starring Rex Harrison.
When the aged English actor playing the role became ill, Matthau went onstage without a rehearsal. He liked to tell the story of how the surprised Harrison looked at him and uttered an expletive. Matthau related: "People in the audience began muttering to each other: 'Did he say "Oh, spit!"?'"
A series of flop plays followed, then Matthau hit a lucky streak with "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" "Once More with Feeling" and "A Shot in the Dark." Hollywood took notice.
His first film, "The Kentuckian" starring and directed by Burt Lancaster in 1955, cast him as a villain, and more heavy roles followed. Among the early films: "King Creole" (Elvis Presley), "A Face in the Crowd" (Andy Griffith), "Lonely Are the Brave" (Kirk Douglas), "Charade" (Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn).
He also appeared on dramatic TV shows such as "Playhouse 90" and "DuPont Show of the Week," and starred on the short-lived series "Tallahassee 7000."
"The Odd Couple" and "The Fortune Cookie" elevated Matthau to stardom, and he enjoyed a wide variety of roles for more than 30 years.
He appeared in action thrillers such as "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" and "The Laughing Policeman," and portrayed a U.S. Supreme Court justice in "First Monday in October." He even did a musical, "Hello Dolly!" costarring with Barbra Streisand, with whom he publicly feuded.
He was always identified with comedy, something that rankled him.
"When people come up to me and say, 'Aren't you that comedian who's in the movies?' I want to throw up," he once complained. "I throw up a lot."
Matthau was often teamed with Lemmon, always as adversaries though they were best friends offscreen. Their films included "The Front Page," "Buddy Buddy," "Grumpier Old Men" and "Out to Sea."
Among Matthau's other films: "Cactus Flower," "Plaza Suite," "Pete 'n' Tilly," "Casey's Shadow," "California Suite," "Little Miss Marker," "I Ought to Be in Pictures," "Pirates," "Dennis the Menace."
He was most recently on screen with Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow in movie "Hanging Up," released in February.
Matthau was married to Grace Geraldine Johnson from 1948 until their divorce in 1958. They had two children, David and Jenny. He married Carol Marcus in 1959, and they had one son, Charles, who became a filmmaker and directed his father in "The Grass Harp" in 1996.
The actor survived several serious health setbacks during his career. While making "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966, he suffered a serious heart attack. His doctor attributed it to smoking three packs a day and constant worry about gambling and told him to give up both. Matthau stopped smoking.
In 1976, he underwent heart bypass surgery. After working in freezing Minnesota weather for "Grumpy Old Men" in 1993, he was hospitalized for double pneumonia. In December 1995 he had a colon tumor removed; it tested benign.
He was also hospitalized in May 1999 for more than two months after another bout with pneumonia.
Matthau attributed his various illnesses to his eating habits: "If you eat only celery and lettuce, you won't get sick. ... I like celery and lettuce, but I like it with pickles, relish, corned beef, potatoes, peas. And I like Eskimo Pies, vanilla ice cream with chocolate covering."