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MATTHAU SURVIVES PNEUMONIA, HEART ATTACK

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Walter Matthau has beaten the odds again, surviving double pneumonia that might have meant curtains for a less stubborn 72-year-old.

That makes it a clean record for the actor, who came through bombardments in World War II and a heart attack in 1954, not to mention the slings and arrows of outraged critics.He only wishes he had the same kind of luck with his other career, as a world-class gambler. He claims to have kicked the habit after this year's Super Bowl. He calculates his lifetime losses at $5 million.

Matthau appeared in good health as he underwent interviews for "Dennis the Menace," John Hughes' feature version of the vintage TV series and Hank Ketcham's comic strip. The actor is typecast as the irascible Mr. Wilson to 7-year-old Mason Gamble's Dennis.

The Academy Award-winning actor discussed his recent brush with the fates four months ago during an interview.

"I couldn't make the last day of shooting (on `Grumpy Old Men' in Minnesota with Jack Lemmon). I was up all night coughing, and nothing was coming up. I went to the hospital in the morning and had some X-rays. They said, `Boy, I don't know how you're alive. You've got bilateral infiltrate pneumonia, and your lungs are all full.'

"I got scared and they gave me a sedative, and I lay in the hospital for seven days. I haven't the slightest idea how I got pneumonia. Can you get it from cold weather? It was 22 below zero on Lake Rebecca. The story was about two old guys fishing on a frozen lake north of Minneapolis. Great place, by the way, Minnesota."

What was he thinking during those seven days?

"How nice the nurses were," said Matthau. "And the doctors. They were always in there. I guess I started telling jokes the third day. I always had a big audience. They don't have many movie stars up there."

So as not to alert the media, Matthau registered at the Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, Minn., as Max Goldman, his name in the movie ("the nurses would come in and say, `Good morning, Max."'). He admits that thoughts of mortality crossed his mind, but then, his record has been pretty good.

During World War II, Matthau crossed the English channel in a small craft through waters mined by the Germans; he also underwent bombardments in the front lines as a radio operator-cryptographer.

"We went up north to Holland and got into a terrific bombing raid," he recalled. "I was under a truck playing high-stakes pinochle. I never thought about being hit or saying, `Is this it?' There was too much money involved; there was a hand that could have cost $3,400."

He admitted that his heart attack and bypass surgery 28 years ago changed his lifestyle: "I gave up smoking. I was more careful with the food. More exercise, walking. I'm now back up to three miles."

He's still recovering from the pneumonia. "You've got to watch that you don't wheeze at night," he said. "There's a lot of wheezing - sounds like mice running up and down your nasal cavities. Whishhht! You wake up at night and wonder, `Where the hell are these bleeping mice?' "

The most surprising development in Matthau's life concerns his wagering.

"Gave it up after the Super Bowl," he announced. "I had Buffalo (vs. the victorious Dallas Cowboys), and I just quit. Cold turkey.

"If I had continued, I probably would have done very well. On the first day of the NBA finals I wanted to call the bookie. I wanted to make a large bet on the Chicago Bulls. Then I stopped and said, `You're gonna win this bet. It's gonna be so easy to take that large wad of dough and put it in your pocket; you didn't even work for it. You're gonna make another bet the next day, until you're totally wiped out.' So I didn't bet.

"I still owe the books a goodly sum for the Super Bowl bet, which I told them would be payable June 15."

It may come as a surprise to Matthau watchers that he actually enjoyed working with the new Dennis the Menace, Mason Gamble.

"I don't believe that junk about not working with kids or animals; I think W.C. Fields probably said it as a joke," he declared. "Kids are fascinating to work with. You have to wait a little longer, because they aren't going to jump in and give you the lines on cue. Especially when they get tired or bored. They're going to be looking for a basketball or some kind of a game.

"I got a book full of children's jokes. I'd tell Mason a lot of jokes." Matthau said he always has enjoyed working with kids, even on "Bad New Bears."

"Except when the kids started fighting among themselves," he recalled. "Tatum O'Neal (then 9) had a fight with another kid, and she said, `Cut it out, you . . . ' I said, `All right, boys and girls, I'm going to my trailer. When you're through with the obscenities and the bickering, let me know and I'll be ready to work.' They came around five minutes later."

Matthau is a native New Yorker who studied journalism at Columbia University before acting in summer stock. He landed his first Broadway role in 1948 in "Anne of a Thousand Days" and went on to a part in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" But his best-known stage portrayal was in "The Odd Couple."

Besides "The Fortune Cookie," for which he won the supporting actor Oscar in 1966, Matthau's extensive movie career has included "A Face in the Crowd," "The Kentuckian," "Voice in the Mirror," "Charade," "Goodbye Charlie," "The Odd Couple," "Cactus Flower," "Charlie Varick," "The Sunshine Boys," "California Suite," "Hopscotch" and "Pirates."