Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

St. Matthau gospel is comic

Cleveland Press March 26, 1971

You don't know Charlie Matthau. Charlie Matthau is 7 years old and tells jokes and Walter Matthau is his straight man.

"Do you know Lincoln's Gettysburg address?" asked Walter.

"I didn't know he moved," answered Charlie.

"How about that?" asked Walter Matthau beaming and looking around the lunch table.

Actor Walter Matthau is always on quipping, sounding like a Walter Matthau character, upstaged by no one except his son Charlie and if ever a father glowed it is Walter in the presence of Charlie.

WALTER MATTHAU has two comedy movies set for release -- "A New Leaf" with Elaine May which will open in Cleveland Wednesday, and "Plaza Suite" which will be released this summer.

It was on the set of "Plaza Suite," based on Neil Simon's hit comedy play, that l interviewed Matthau recently. The set was -- appropriately enough -- the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Earlier in the morning Matthau was standing to one side waiting to be called before the cameras. He wore a full dress suit -- tails, striped trousers, high collar -- as the father of the bride. He kept his chin high to keep the makeup from rubbing on his collar.

"I USED TO think I'd always be a second banana and I was satisfied," Matthau recalled. "Now I'm just as shocked as anyone that I'm a movie star.

"Director Billy Wilder told me 13 years ago that if I could get one big role I'd e a star. He gave me the role, finally, in 'Fortune cookie.'

Matthau also was frequently a heavy in films and even the "Fortune Cookie" role was something of a heavy.

"You think I was a heavy?" he asked the putty like face going into a look of mock disbelief. 'Funny, l thought I was the protagonist.

"IT ALL DEPENDS how you look at things,' he pontificated. "My first wife thought I looked like Wallace Beery. My second wife thinks I look like Sir Laurence Olivier. That's why she's my second wife."

Matthau is an actor who made it big on the stage before being recognized for better roles in the movies.

"I did a walk-on in "Anne of the 1000 Days," then replaced one of the actors playing an old English bishop. I don't think anyone would let me play an old English bishop today.

"The first significant play was 'Shot in the Dark.' It catapulted me into the field of light comedy. Then comedies started coming my way and when I did 'Odd Couple' on Broadway it threw me over the top and made Wilder give me my big chance.

"NEXT I'LL be making "Kotch" in which I play a 75-year-old man. Jack Lemmon is directing it and I guess that's why I'm doing it. He's fun to work with.

"How did I like 'Hello, Dolly?' It wasn't my dish of tea. But then I never did like musicals. Barbara Streisand?'

He puzzled for a moment.

"She's marvelous to work with.' Long pause. "I mean that literally. Look up marvelous in your dictionary.

(Marvelous -- causing or being such as to cause wonder . . . being or having the characteristics of a miracle.)

IT'S NO SECRET that for year the actor's major hangup was gambling, a habit he finally kicked.

"I once lost $38,000 on a ballgame. I quit the heavy stuff five years ago. I made a bet and lied to my wife about it. I had a heart attack that night. I figure I don't need another.

"I used to bet on anything.

When I was 19 I worked in a CCC camp and I bet a guy a Snickers bar I could stop a buzz saw with my bare hands.

"I grabbed both ends of the shaft and broke both thumbs. One of them never set properly," he said holding up both hands.

LATER AT LUNCH -- minus makeup, padding and tail -- he relaxed. He said that one reason he enjoys playing Neil Simon roles is that the writer's speech rhythm is consistent with his.

"Whenever I see Simon I automatically start talking like he writes."

CHARLIE THEN got into the spirit of things and turned interviewer.

"What 's your favorite part? ' he asked.

"'Odd Couple'," his dad answered. "I think I am one of the great interpreters of Simon," he went on in mock, seriousness.

"You're one of the greatest nuts," opined Charlie.

Matthau pretended to look stern, half rose and motioned to an imaginary figure in the distance.

"Officer," he called.