Walter Matthau was one of the most beloved and versatile actors of his generation. He starred in dozens of films, ranging from comedy to drama, and won an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and two Tony Awards. He was best known for his collaborations with Jack Lemmon, especially in The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men. He also had memorable roles in The Fortune Cookie, The Sunshine Boys, Charade, Hello, Dolly!, and The Bad News Bears.
But how did Walter Matthau die? What was his cause of death? And what was his life like before he passed away? In this article, we will explore these questions and pay tribute to the legacy of this great actor.
Early Life and Career
Walter Matthau was born in New York City on October 1, 1920, to Milton Matuschanskayasky and the former Rose Berolsky, impoverished Jewish immigrants. His father, from Russia, was an electrician turned process server who abandoned the family when Walter was 3 years old and who died 12 years later
Matthau had a difficult childhood, living in a series of cold-water flats on the Lower East Side. He had to work at various jobs from a young age, including selling soft drinks at a Yiddish theatre, where he also developed an interest in acting. He attended Seward Park High School, where he excelled in sports and drama.
During World War II, he served as a radioman-gunner in the U.S. Army Air Forces, flying missions over Europe. He was awarded six battle stars and the Air Medal. After the war, he studied at the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop, where he met other aspiring actors like Rod Steiger, Eli Wallach, Tony Curtis, and Harry Belafonte
He made his professional debut in 1946 and soon appeared on Broadway in several plays, including Anne of the Thousand Days and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. He also worked on television and radio, often playing villains or supporting characters.
Breakthrough and Stardom
Matthau’s breakthrough came in 1965, when he originated the role of Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s hit comedy The Odd Couple on Broadway. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his performance as the sloppy sportswriter who shares an apartment with his fastidious friend Felix Unger (played by Art Carney)
He reprised the role in the 1968 film adaptation, opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix. This marked the beginning of a long and successful partnership between Matthau and Lemmon, who would go on to star in 10 films together, including The Front Page (1974), The Sunshine Boys (1975), Buddy Buddy (1981), Grumpy Old Men (1993), Grumpier Old Men (1995), Out to Sea (1997), and The Odd Couple II (1998). They became one of the most popular and enduring comedy duos in Hollywood history.
Matthau also proved his versatility as an actor by taking on different genres and roles. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a shyster lawyer in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie (1966), another film with Lemmon. He received two more Oscar nominations for his roles as a curmudgeonly retiree in Kotch (1971) and as a feuding vaudeville comedian in The Sunshine Boys (1975)
He also showed his flair for romance, suspense, musicals, and action in films such as Charade (1963) with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, Hello, Dolly! (1969) with Barbra Streisand, Plaza Suite (1971) with Maureen Stapleton, Charley Varrick (1973) with Joe Don Baker, Hopscotch (1980) with Glenda Jackson, and First Monday in October (1981) with Jill Clayburgh.
Personal Life and Death
Matthau was married twice. His first marriage was to Grace Geraldine Johnson from 1948 to 1958. They had two children: David Matthau, a film director; and Jenny Matthau, a health food advocate. His second marriage was to Carol Marcus from 1959 until his death. They had one son: Charles Matthau, also a film director. Carol Marcus had been previously married to playwright William Saroyan twice.
Matthau was known for his love of practical jokes, chess, gambling, sports, and cigars. He also had a lifelong passion for classical music and opera. He was friends with many celebrities, including Frank Sinatra , Walter Cronkite , Johnny Carson , Gregory Peck , and Lauren Bacall .
Matthau suffered from various health problems throughout his life, including rheumatic fever, tuberculosis, appendicitis, and a heart attack. He had a quadruple bypass surgery in 1976 and another one in 1985. He also had colon cancer in 1976 and prostate cancer in 1993
He died of a heart attack on July 1, 2000, at the age of 79, in Santa Monica, California. He was buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, near his friend Jack Lemmon, who died less than a year later
Legacy and Influence
Walter Matthau was one of the most respected and admired actors of his time. He left behind a rich and diverse body of work that showcased his talent, charisma, and humor. He influenced many comedians and actors, such as Billy Crystal , Steve Martin , Richard Dreyfuss , Kevin Kline , and Tom Hanks .
He was honored with many awards and tributes, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame , the Kennedy Center Honors , the American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award , and the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award . He was also inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and the Television Academy Hall of Fame .
Walter Matthau was a true legend of the stage and screen, who entertained millions of people with his unforgettable performances. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest actors and comedians of all time.