Walter Matthau, whose performances as cantankerous but endearing characters made him a distinctive leading man in movies, theater and television, died yesterday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 79.
The cause was a heart attack, said Lindi Funston, a spokesman for St. John's Health Center, where Matthau died.
Matthau's breakthrough role was as Oscar Madison, the slovenly sportswriter in Neil Simon's 1965 Broadway comedy and 1968 film "The Odd Couple." But that was only one of an extraordinarily diverse galaxy of characters. In his long career, he played lawyers, editors, detectives, spies, sheriffs, even romantic leading men, and each one of them looked and acted like Walter Matthau.
In 1994, he played a comic version of Albert Einstein in the movie "IQ," and Einstein began to resemble the shaggy, shambling actor.
Simon credited Matthau's rumpled persona and ironic wit as being the inspiration for Oscar, the nemesis of his fussy apartment-mate and fellow dropout from marriage, Felix Unger (Art Carney on stage, Jack Lemmon in the film). In his memoirs, the playwright said the actor at first wanted to play Felix, in retrospect a mind-boggling idea, but one that Matthau undoubtedly could have accomplished. He was, said Simon, "the greatest instinctive actor I've ever seen."
Matthau was a tall man with a perpetual slouch and a perpetual frown. No matter how elegant his character was supposed to be, in common with Oscar he usually looked as if he had been sleeping in his clothes. But through a kind of reverse chic, Matthau could make himself seem stylish. Without airs or affectations, he became a widely respected international star.
Though he often played dramatic roles, comedy was his metier. With his hangdog face and growling voice, he added humor to his line readings. Dialogue that would not be so funny in print became hilarious when delivered by Matthau. With perfect timing, he was an expert at the slow burn, the double take, the explosion into exasperation. "Walter doesn't need funny lines," George Burns, who starred with him in the movie of Simon's play "The Sunshine Boys," once said. "He's fearless - no inhibitions."
It was with Jack Lemmon that he became half of one of America's favorite, if floating, comedy teams. In addition to "The Odd Couple," they were in three Billy Wilder comedies, "The Fortune Cookie," "The Front Page" and "Buddy Buddy." The two aged together before the camera until they were playing the twinned title roles in "Grumpy Old Men." In the sequel, they became "Grumpier Old Men" and probably would have been on their way to "Grumpiest."
Matthau was, Lemmon said, "the most totally professional actor I've ever worked with." Wilder said, "He knows how to get the maximum out of everything. I wish I had him for my next 50 pictures."
Matthau worked his way up from poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to varied roles in stock, more than 20 Broadway plays (mostly flops) and scores of live television shows. He became, successively, an adept movie villain and comedian and later, improbably, a leading man.
He was tireless in improvising fresh comic business to sharpen and enhance plays and films, and in spinning perceptive observations from commonplace events. With sly self-mockery, he described his Hollywood image as a "Ukrainian Cary Grant."
Film portraits shaped by Matthau included a tricky lawyer in "The Fortune Cookie" (a performance that earned him a 1966 Academy Award as best supporting actor), an inept rake in "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967), sly philanderers in "The Secret Life of an American Wife" (1968) and "Cactus Flower" (1969), and three tour de force roles in Simon's "Plaza Suite" (1971), as a callous husband, a vulgar filmmaker and a put-upon father.
He enlivened thrillers such as "Charlie Varrick" (1973) and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974), and he played W. C. Fields-like child detesters in "The Bad News Bears" (1976) and the 1979 remake of "Little Miss Marker."
Matthau was born in New York City on Oct. 1, 1920, to Milton Matuschanskayasky and the former Rose Berolsky, poor Jewish immigrants. His father, from Russia, was an electrician turned process server who abandoned the family when Walter was 3.
Young Walter took refuge in acting, appearing in theatricals in schools and settlement houses and reading Shakespeare nearly every day. At 11, he started selling ice cream and soft drinks in the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue and did bit parts while studying the great Yiddish actors.
In World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving as a radio operator and cryptographer in Europe and earning six battle stars. In 1966, he suffered a severe heart attack that was brought on, his doctor said, by heavy smoking, compulsive gambling and insufficient exercise. The crisis created a reformed man: a nonsmoker, a more moderate gambler (or so it was said) and a dedicated walker.
He was a lifelong enthusiast of sports and classical music and was known to friends as one of the best-natured of men.
His son Charles became a movie director.
Matthau is also survived by his wife, Carol; and two children from a previous marriage, a son, David, and a daughter, Jenny.