Walter Matthau Laid To Rest

An Indian Muslim boy, center, sells colorful caps ahead of the Eid-ul-Fitr festival in Calcutta, India, Monday, Oct. 23, 2006. Eid-ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.
AP Photo/Sucheta Das
Actor Walter Matthau had wanted a simple burial in a plain casket -- his son says that's just what he got.

Charlie Matthau says his father was buried in Los Angeles yesterday in a private service before about 50 family members and close friends.

The beloved character actor, who rose to stardom playing loutish sports writer Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple on Broadway, died of a heart attack at 1:42 a.m. Saturday at 79.

He was laid to rest at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, where Marilyn Monroe is buried.

Charlie Matthau says his dad had wanted as little fuss as possible during his funeral.

He says he plans on holding a memorial service in a few weeks.

Matthau went from playing villains to become the modern king of the entertainment world's grumpy but lovable slobs. He made over 45 films, including The Front Page, The Sunshine Boys and The Bad News Bears, and over his career elevated grouchiness to an art form.

"I'm all of it," Matthau once joked about his resemblance to the men he played. "Sweet, crotchety old coot, very handsome, magnificent, brilliant, wonderful. And good in bed!"

Walter Matuchanskayasky was born in New York in 1920 to poor Russian immigrants. His first taste of show business came selling sodas at a Yiddish theater. As he worked his way to Broadway his last name became Matthau.

His big break came in playwright Neil Simon's classic The Odd Couple.

Simon says Matthau "was perfect from the day I met (him). I saw him in Guys and Dolls and as I was writing The Odd Couple, I said, 'that was Oscar.'"

Simon recalls actually getting Matthau into Oscar Madison's rumpled costume took a bit more effort.

"I said I'm writing a play for you. He said send it to me when you're finished with it. I finished the play and sent it to him. He said I love it, I'll do it, I want to play FELIX. I talked him out of it," remembers Simon.

That was the big moment, says the playwright. "I knew he was gonna be a big star after that; he wasn't before that. He was a very good character actor, but there was such an explosion of humor that came out of him. The show and ultimately the movie were gigantic hits so I knew Walter was on his way."

As for Matthau the man, Simon describes him as "irascible but he did it purposely; he liked to stir things up. But he was very scholarly in many areas."

In a statement, long-time Matthau co-star Jack Lemmon said "We have lost one of the best damn actors we'll ever see."

Together, Lemmon and Matthau formed one of Hollywood's most successful screen teams.

Matthau won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for Billy Wilder's 1966 comedy The Fortune Cookie.

In later years, he recalled the win with trademark wit.

"The academy award? Yeah, I wasn't surprised. I thought I'd get it. I looked at my competition nd I thought I'd get it," he once said.

Other Hollywood highlights for Matthau included:

  • A Guide for the Married Man
  • Secret Life of An American Wife
  • Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
  • A Face in the Crowd
  • King Creole
  • Cactus Flower
  • A New Leaf
  • Plaza Suite
  • Pete'n Tillie
  • The Front Page
  • The Sunshine Boys
  • The Bad News Bears
  • The Taking of Pelham, One Two Three
  • California Suite
  • Little Miss Marker
  • Dennis the Menace
  • Grumpy Old Men
Often cast as a would-be con man foiled by life's travails, Matthau bellowed complaints against his tormentors and moved his lean, 6-foot-3 frame in surprising ways.

Lemmon once summed up the unique gait that was Matthau's in a way that all fans cannot help but recognize: "Walter walks like a child's windup toy."

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