LOS ANGELES, July 3 (JTA) Actor Walter Matthau, who got his start in New York’s Yiddish theater, died Saturday in Santa Monica, Calif., following a heart attack.
Matthau, who turned grumpiness into an art form, was 79.
During a stage, movie and television career spanning 50 years, Matthau is perhaps best remembered for his role as the slob Oscar Madison yoked to the finicky Felix Unger in the film version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
Simon, a great fan of Matthau, described him as “one of the greatest instinctive actors I have known.”
Jack Lemmon, who played Unger and numerous other roles opposite Matthau, issued a statement saying, “I have just lost someone I’ve loved as a brother, as my closest friend and a remarkable human being.”
His hangdog looks and growling voice graced more than 60 films and 23 plays. He won an Oscar in 1966 for best supporting actor as an unethical lawyer in “The Fortune Cookie,” and received best actor nominations for “Kotch” and “The Sunshine Boys.”
In private life, Matthau was “an incredibly proud Jew” who frequently participated in Shabbat and High Holy Day services at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, recalled Rabbi Jerry Cutler.
The actor never hesitated to confront anti-Semitism and once had it out with British actress Vanessa Redgrave after she praised the Palestine Liberation Organization and denigrated Israel, Cutler said.
Born Walter Matuschanskayasky on New York’s Lower East Side, the future actor experienced the hand-to-mouth existence of an immigrant family.
His father, Melos (Milton), a Russian-born electrician, abandoned the family when Walter was 3.
His Lithuanian-born mother, Rose, worked in a sweatshop to support Walter and his brother. The family moved frequently from one cold-water flat to another to stay ahead of the rent collector.
At 11, Matthau started selling ice cream and soft drinks in the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue. For an additional 50 cents, he performed in bit roles. In his first part, with two lines, Matthau played an old lady in a crowd scene, he recalled later.
Matthau excelled as an athlete in high school and, among numerous other jobs, worked as a boxing instructor and basketball coach.
After three years’ service in the Air Force during World War II, Matthau turned to serious study as an actor. In his first professional performance, he was cast in “Three Men on a Horse” in 1946.
Matthau frequently portrayed explicitly or implicitly Jewish characters. In 1994, he played Albert Einstein in the comic film “I.Q..” and two years later he was an old-time Jewish radical in “I’m Not Rappaport.”
Two months ago, his final film “Hanging Up” came out, in which he played a cantankerous family patriarch. In an interview at the time, he bemoaned the lack of good parts for older actors.
“No one sits down to write a picture about a guy in his 80s and expects anyone to back it,” he told JTA. “I’m 79 and there are few leading roles for a man my age. That’s a shame because guys like us have been in the business long enough to know what we’re doing.”
Matthau was married twice, first to Grace Johnson, with whom he had two children, David and Jenny.
After a divorce, he married Carol Marcus, a close friend of the writers Truman Capote and James Agee. She had previously been married twice to the writer William Saroyan.
The couple’s son, Charles, directed his father in the 1996 film, “The Grass Harp.”
Matthau displayed a lifelong passion for sports, classical music and gambling. In contrast to his professional grumpiness, the actor was described by one friend as “the best-natured of men.”