He was born Walter
Matuchanskavasky on October
1, 1920, in New York, the son of poor
Russian-Jewish immigrants. After a series of
journeyman jobs and a stint as a soldier in World
War II, Matthau took some acting lessons and, at the
age of 28, landed the role of understudy to Rex
Harrison's aged British bishop in the Broadway
drama Anne of the Thousand Days.
His first major Broadway success, however, came
with A Shot in the Dark. Hollywood soon put his
lanky, 6-foot-3 frame to use as a heavy in such films
as The Kentuckian, with Burt Lancaster, and King
Creole, with Elvis, before he hit his comic stride in
The Fortune Cookie.
Matthau married his first wife, Grace Geraldine
Johnson, in 1948. They divorced 10 years later after
having two children, David and Jenny. He married
Carol Marcus in 1959, and their only child, son
Charles, became a filmmaker.
Ill health plagued Matthau from the beginning of his
career. He suffered a major heart attack in 1966
(doctors blamed his three-pack-a-day smoking habit
and stress from gambling--he gave up the smoking),
underwent heart bypass surgery in 1976, suffered
double pneumonia in 1993 (after shooting Grumpy
Old Men during the frigid Minnesota winter), had a
benign colon tumor removed in 1995 and was
hospitalized again for pneumonia in May 1999.
In typical form, Matthau blamed his maladies on his
bad 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."