Walter Matthau, a class act remembered

It was Thanksgiving 1998 at Carol and Walter Matthau's. A party at their Pacific Palisades home was always fun. How could it miss with such guests as Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine?

This year was different. They seated me between Nathan Lane, Tony Award winner, and Joan Plowright (Lady Olivier, her husband was famed actor Sir Laurence Olivier). Within minutes, Mr. Matthau, who died Saturday, July 1, made us feel as if we'd known each other for years.

How could you be standoffish with your neighbors when your host was describing his comically failed attempt to conduct the Colorado State Symphony Orchestra? "Occasionally I'd close my eyes lost in the music of Mozart's 17th Sonata. These musicians were so good they didn't need me. I just stood before them, waved my arms with the right gestures, and stayed one-half beat behind them.... [There] was just one critic who abstained from comment on my 'pretend performance.' Instead he reviewed my face, described it as resembling a melting bulldog."

Ms. Plowright laughed, which only encouraged Matthau. "I remember 20 years ago walking down the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and a woman came up to me and said, "Handsome you're not, but you do have something. Your face is like ... like," she paused groping for the right phrase, "an old catcher's mitt."

Matthau, the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, grew up in a cold-water tenement on New York's Lower East Side. He couldn't read a word of music, and he once told me, "We didn't have an instrument, for we didn't even have bread. Literally, we needed help to get bread and a bowl of soup."

He remembered that every Friday at school they'd assemble in the auditorium to hear noted conductors on the radio. "That's how I knew about classical music. Also, my mother listened to it on the radio."

So Walter Matuschanskavasky, his real name, grew up with an ear for classical music.

Another evening Matthau was talking with director Billy Wilder and Mr. Lemmon about what makes a good movie. Matthau, star of such films as "Grumpy Old Men" and the more recent "Hanging Up," said it was the script and the director. Mr. Wilder's direction in '66 for "The Fortune Cookie" helped land Matthau an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

"The day I read Neil Simon's play, 'The Odd Couple' [which Mr. Simon had written with Matthau in mind], I told Carol, 'Here is a play that will run for 10 years.' "

He was right. It also won him a Tony for his role as the sportswriter whose idea of neatness was leaving dirty pots and pans in the sink, not the stove.

Once I showed Matthau questions people asked about him on my Web site. "What were two jobs you had before you became an actor?" "I once worked as an electroplater of pocketbook frames. They made me wear sneakers so when dipping the purse frames in yellow liquid I wouldn't get an electrical shock.

"When I was 11, I sold soft drinks during intermissions in a Second Avenue Yiddish theater. I got on stage when they paid me 50 cents. That was my first taste of being a paid actor."

Another question he enjoyed was "Name two people who have influenced you." He named one.

"My mother, at 14, came alone to the US from a farm in Lithuania. She met my father, had two sons, then he ran away. She had to work hard supporting us."

He continued, "A happy moment came when I could buy mom a condo in Florida.... She loved the beach, so I got her an apartment on the water. I told her she could live there rent free, have a driver to take her wherever she wanted, have tickets for herself and a friend to any play or opera that came to Miami."

A few months later, Matthau asked what plays she'd seen. She hadn't seen any. Her question was, "Who's paying for this?" He said, "My agent." She said, "Send me the money instead."

One of the last times we met, I asked him to name some career rewards. "I don't have to worry about eating. I have warm clothes and a raincoat. I have a nice house and lots of Mozart records."

Growing more serious, he added, "I have a wife, the love of my life, and beautiful children. It's given me a life." He smiled, "My wife, Carol, has given me a sense of class."

Walter and Carol met while working on Broadway's "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" He proposed by calling Western Union and sending a telegram. "I love you. Will you marry me?" That was 32 years ago. The couple have one son, Charlie, a film director. Matthau has a son and daughter by his first marriage.

After 50 years in show business - receiving an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony - he had done it all. I was standing on the porch as we parted, for what was to be the last time. He was getting ready for his daily two-mile walk. I turned and said, "Walter, how have you stayed so centered?"

"I don't know any other way to be. I live each day and try to be decent and respectable."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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