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Walter Matthau, comic actor, dies at 79

SHARE Walter Matthau, comic actor, dies at 79

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Walter Matthau, the foghorn-voiced movie villain who became a master of crotchety comedy with his Oscar-winning "The Fortune Cookie," followed by "The Odd Couple" and "Grumpy Old Men," died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 79.

Matthau was pronounced dead at 1:42 a.m. at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, said hospital spokeswoman Lindi Funston.

"I have lost someone I loved as a brother, as a closest friend and a remarkable human being," said frequent co-star Jack Lemmon. "We have also lost one of the best actors we'll ever see."

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.

"Walter walks like a child's windup toy," Lemmon once said.

Matthau's performance as Lemmon's shyster brother-in-law in "The Fortune Cookie," directed by Billy Wilder, won him the Academy Award as best supporting actor of 1966. He was twice nominated for best actor: as the cantankerous oldster in "Kotch," 1971 (directed by Lemmon), and as the feuding vaudeville partner of George Burns in "The Sunshine Boys," 1975.

"He was so natural. He was himself, with all the quirks that a human being has," Wilder said Saturday. "He was a guy who made great friends. Whether you played cards with him or whether you talked football bets with him, he was a full-blown man."

"The Odd Couple" provided the role that established Matthau's stardom. In 1965 he appeared in New York as the slobby sportswriter Oscar Madison in Neil Simon's play. Art Carney was the fastidious photographer, Felix Unger, who shared an apartment with Madison after both had been divorced.

Matthau repeated the role in the 1968 film, with Lemmon as Felix. They reprised their roles 30 years later in the 1998 film "Odd Couple II."

Matthau had survived several serious health setbacks, including an earlier heart attack, but he was growing increasingly sick and his ability to bounce back was diminishing, and longtime agent Leonard Hirshan said his death was sobering but inevitable.

Matthau could be as whimsically eccentric in interviews as he was on the screen. Reporters had to exercise caution in separating fact from his flights of fancy.

In responding to a form for Current Biography, he reported that his father had been an Eastern Orthodox priest in czarist Russia who ran afoul of church authorities by preaching the infallibility of the pope. His father was actually a peddler from Kiev.

When he filled out his Social Security form in 1937, he listed his middle name as Foghorn. He never corrected it.

He was born Walter Matuchanskayasky on Oct. 1, 1920, in New York City to impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father left home when Walter was 3. Walter and his older brother, Henry, lived with their mother, a garment worker, in a series of cold-water flats on the lower East Side.

He was already 6 feet tall at age 10 and weighed 90 pounds. "When I drank cherry soda, I looked like a thermometer," he once cracked.

After World War II, when he served in the Army Air Corps, he returned home a sergeant with six battle stars and a fistful of money from poker winnings.

Legends of his gambling followed him throughout his life. While making a TV series in Florida before his movie stardom, he lost $183,000 betting on spring-training baseball games.

In middle age he estimated his lifetime gambling losses at $5 million.

Matthau was married to Grace Geraldine Johnson from 1948 until their divorce in 1958. They had two children, David and Jenny. He married Carol Marcus in 1959, and they had one son, Charles, who became a filmmaker and directed his father in "The Grass Harp" in 1995.