Combustible Celluloid

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

The saddest thing about losing actor Walter Matthau, who died on July 1 at age 79, is that he's irreplaceable. When was the last time you heard anyone being called "the next Walter Matthau"? There just isn't one.

Born Walter Matuschanskayasky, Matthau preferred stage work to film work, but nevertheless appeared in many very good films. In the beginning, he played bit parts and bad guys in several excellent films; Burt Lancaster's "The Kentuckian" (1955, his debut), Andre De Toth's "The Indian Fighter" (1955), Nicholas Ray's "Bigger Than Life" (1956), Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), with Elvis in Michael Curtiz' "King Creole" (1958), and in Stanley Donen's "Charade" (1963).

His breakthrough came in both the stage and film version of "The Odd Couple" (1966) in which he established his crotchety, grumpy, rumpled persona. But although he continued to use that throughout his career, he was an effortless actor who could dissolve into any role he took on, comedy or drama.

The following is a video list of Matthau's most interesting films that we can remember him by, now and always.

Charade (1963)
Stanley Donen's homage to Hitchcock has Matthau as a double agent who may or may not be on the side of Audrey Hepburn. He makes his mark on the film by performing something as meaningless as offering her a choice of liverwurst or chicken salad sandwiches.

Fail-Safe (1964)
Sidney Lumet's grippingly suspenseful cold war drama is about a computer safety device gone wrong and an American plane mistakenly on its way to bomb Russia.

The Fortune Cookie (1966)
This was the first of Matthau's three films with writer/director Billy Wilder and co-star Jack Lemmon. (Matthau would make seven more films with Lemmon.) Matthau won an Oscar for his portrayal of a greedy lawyer who takes an injured TV cameraman under his wing.

A New Leaf (1971)
Elaine May's films as director are finally beginning to receive the respect they deserve. In this old-fashioned screwball romance, she directs herself as a klutzy heiress with Matthau as a playboy trying to woo her.

Charley Varrick (1973)
Matthau plays a tough guy bank robber who tangles with the mob in Don Siegel's amazing crime caper that has a particularly great ending.

The Taking of Pelham, One Two Three (1974)
This Quentin Tarantino favorite is another great thriller about a group of thugs who hold a New York subway train hostage, directed by Joseph Sargent.

The Front Page (1976)
Billy Wilder's re-working Ben Hecht's and Charles MacArthur's classic newspaper play was last made in 1940 as "His Girl Friday". Matthau plays the Cary Grant role and makes it his own.

The Bad News Bears (1976)
One of the great baseball movies ever made, Matthau plays a kid-hating coach (a la W.C. Fields) who allows a girl (Tatum O'Neal) to play on his bumbling little league team.

Grumpy Old Men (1993)
One of Matthau's and Lemmon's most successful efforts, they play ancient rivals in a small wintry town, fighting over new neighbor Ann-Margaret. It was followed by a sequel, "Grumpier Old Men", in 1995.

I.Q. (1994)
In a brilliant comic performance directed by Fred Schepisi, Matthau plays a matchmaking Albert Einstein, pairing his niece Meg Ryan up with mechanic Tim Robbins.

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