Here are 10 trivia facts about Walter Matthau which originally appeared as our Who Am I? Quiz on our Facebook page. There are hundreds of pieces of behind-the-scenes information about this Hollywood legend. Please feel free to comment and add more trivia we might have missed.
1. Although I am primarily known in movies, I am also a Tony Award winner.
Actually, Walter Matthau won two Tony Awards. He had a very well-respected career as an actor on the Broadway stage, and in 1962 won his first Antoinette Perry Award for Best Actor, Supporting or Featured (Dramatic) for his performance in “A Shot in the Dark.” Two years later, he created one of his most famous roles as Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” taking home the Tony for Best Peformance by a Leading Actor in a Play (he would, of course, go on to reprise his turn as the slovenly sportswriter in the 1968 movie version). Before winning the coveted statuette, however, Walter was nominated in 1959 for his supporting role in “Once More with Feeling.”
2. My name is well-known, but I did not use it for an early acting gig.
Apparently it’s not known why, but when Matthau appeared with Wally Cox in the pilot episode for Mr. Peepers in 1952, he used the name of Leonard Elliot. He played Coach Burr, the gym teacher, in one of his earliest TV roles. This wouldn’t be the last time Walter played the name game however; in filling out his first Social Security form in 1937, he added a middle name of “Foghorn,” and there it remained forever. And while he was born Walter Matthow, in another switcheroo the prank-loving actor told everyone his real name was “Matuschanskayasky” because he thought it was more exotic. Crazy as it sounds, he was actually credited with that lengthy moniker when he played a drunk in Earthquake (1974).
3. I’ve worked with many co-stars, but I appeared numerous times with one in particular.
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon starred together in nine movies: The Fortune Cookie (1966), which earned Matthau a Best Actor Academy Award; The Odd Couple (1968); The Front Page (1974); Buddy Buddy (1981); Grumpy Old Men (1993) and its follow-up Grumpier Old Men (1995); The Grass Harp (1995); Out to Sea (1997); and The Odd Couple II (1998). Matthau’s acclaimed performance in Kotch (1971) was directed by Lemmon (who made a cameo appearance), and the longtime co-stars were also seen in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), although their characters had no screen time together.
4. In one of my films, shooting was stopped for a time because of my illness.
While Walter was filming The Fortune Cookie, he suffered a severe heart attack, keeping the cast and crew in limbo until he was able to return to work. His habitual smoking and stress from chronic gambling were the main causes cited for his condition, and Walter made a lifelong commitment to walking 2.5 miles a day, but the gambling was another problem that wasn’t as easy to shake…the addiction was something he dealt with his entire life. Although his fans probably weren’t aware of his health issues, Matthau fought heart disease throughout his career and had two bouts of cancer as well. Heart bypass surgery was necessary in 1976, and health issues continued to plague him until his death in 2000.
5. When I died, I was buried next to a Hollywood legend.
Walter was buried in Los Angeles at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, where many notable members of the film family have been laid to rest. Among them is fellow Oscar-winner George C. Scott, who just so happens to be located next to Matthau, albeit in an unmarked grave. And yes, Walter’s old screen buddy Jack Lemmon is buried not too far away as well.
6. I worked many times with the same director, who is probably more famous than me.
Matthau’s relationship with director Billy Wilder goes back to 1955 ,when Billy wanted him for The Seven Year Itch. Unfortunately, the top brass at 20th Century Fox didn’t think Walter was the right choice to handle the role opposite Marilyn Monroe, and insisted on getting Tom Ewell, who had played the part on Broadway. Eventually he and Wilder worked together three times, all with Jack Lemmon as well: The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page and Buddy Buddy.
7. Once I played three different roles in the same movie.
After the box office success of The Odd Couple, Matthau’s career really took off. Among the offers he received was from that film’s scripter, playwright Neil Simon, who wanted him for another project. Simon was filming his Broadway smash Plaza Suite, which was made up of three separate stories all taking place in New York’s famed Plaza Hotel. In the 1970 screen version, Walter plays three different roles with three different leading ladies: Lee Grant, Barbara Harris and Maureen Stapleton.
8. In World War II, I served in the same unit as another famous actor.
Matthau served his country during World War II in the U.S. Army Air Forces, and in England he was attached to the Eighth Air Force, serving as a B-24 Liberator radioman-gunner. James Stewart was also in the same 453rd Bombardment Group. Matthau worked his way up to staff sergeant, becoming interested in acting along the way.
9. I rarely appeared in movies based on true stories, but once I played a real person.
In 1994′s I.Q., Matthau portayed real-life scientist Albert Einstein in a fictional love story involving co-stars Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins. He actually played an historical figure previously–but on the small screen–when he was cast as President Andrew Johnson in the 1964-65 TV series Profiles in Courage.
10. In one of my film roles, I was beaten up by Elvis Presley.
In 1958, Matthau was cast as slimy crime boss Maxie Fields in the Elvis Presley vehicle King Creole. They never see eye to eye, and by the end of the picture, Elvis decks him in a fight that was waiting to happen from the film’s beginning. Years later, when asked about “The King,” Walter surprised some cynics when he said, “He was an instinctive actor… He was quite bright… he was very intelligent… He was not a punk. He was very elegant, sedate, and refined, and sophisticated.”
And now, watch Walter Matthau hold his own against Jack Lemmon in the theatrical trailer from 1968′s The Odd Couple: