Walter Matthau: Remembering A Lower East Side Legend
June 8, 2015

Walter Matthau

Over the years, there have been many actors from the Lower East Side who have gone on to achieve great fame and success: James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Robert De Niro, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Rosario Dawson are some of the most well-known. One actor in particular, whose roots in the Lower East Side are similar to many of the stories we share here at the Tenement Museum, is Academy Award winner Walter Matthau. Despite not having traditional movie star looks, Matthau, with his memorable but craggy hangdog face, would go on to become one of the most respected actors of his generation.

Walter Matthau is probably best remembered for his role as Oscar Madison, opposite frequent co-star Jack Lemmon’s Felix Unger, in Neil Simon’s 1968 feature film, The Odd Couple (Matthau also played the role in the original Broadway production). But beyond The Odd Couple, Matthau’s filmography features lead and supporting performances in many great films that include Charade, The Fortune Cookie (the role that won him an Oscar), Charley Varrick, The Sunshine Boys, The Bad News Bears (NOT the Billy Bob Thornton remake), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (NOT the Denzel Washington/John Travolta remake), among others. He was still a box office draw in his seventies, when he and Jack Lemmon co-starred in the 1993 hit Grumpy Old Men, which spawned a sequel, Grumpier Old Men, in 1995.

Yet, before he was a household name, Walter Matthau was born Walter John Matthow on October 1, 1920 in New York’s Lower East Side. He was the second child of Melas (aka Milton) and Rose Matthow, who immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine and Lithuania. Rose was 14 years old when she first came to America. When asked why she ultimately left Lithuania for the United States, she said: “Because I came from a village, and there was nothing to do there.”

It made sense that Matthau’s parents would settle in the Lower East Side, as by the early 1920’s more than half a million Eastern European Jews settled in this neighborhood.  Milton, who worked as a street peddler, abandoned his wife and two sons before Walter turned three. Needing to make money to care for her kids, Rose would find work in sweatshops, where she sewed ladies undergarments.

The Matthow’s would reside in various tenements throughout the Lower East Side during Walter’s youth. They were probably similar to the tenements we feature at the museum so they may have been approximately 325-square feet. Walter would attend Public School 25 in the neighborhood followed by Junior High School 64. Walter did not have fond memories of his youth growing up in the poverty-stricken Lower East Side. He has admitted that his childhood was “a nightmare, a dreadful, horrible, stinking nightmare.”

Yet, the immigrant culture of the Lower East Side is also what was responsible for Walter Matthau becoming an actor. With a large Yiddish population in the neighborhood, there was a strong desire for old-country entertainment, and as a result, Yiddish stage productions began to flourish in the Lower East Side with Second Avenue becoming known as the Yiddish Great White Way. Matthau attended many of these shows, and the actors he saw made a great impression on him. He would say, “I got to see many of the leading Yiddish actors, like Julius Nathanson, Herman Yablokoff, and Michael Rosenberg. I watched the way they worked. The idea of becoming an actor was lurking somewhere in my head.” Shortly thereafter, he began playing bit parts on stage. An actor had been born.

Matthau in the latter half of his career

After serving in World War II, the GI Bill enabled Walter to enroll in acting classes at the New School where he started to really hone his craft. It was also around this time that he changed his last name from “Matthow” to “Matthau,”. He found work in theater and film throughout the 1940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s. He was a working actor. However, his big break came in early 1965, when the playwright Neil Simon cast him as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. The play was a smash hit, and Matthau went from character actor to superstar. Matthau worked consistently for the next four decades until he passed away on July 1, 2000 at the age of 79.

In his lifetime, Walter Matthau had won a Tony and an Academy Award, had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and garnered a legion of fans that spanned numerous generations. Not bad for a poor kid who grew up in the tenements on the Lower East Side.

Much of the information for this blog was found on the outstanding website for The Matthau Company which is led by Walter’s son Charles Matthau. You can visit the site to read more about the Matthau family at: http://matthau.com

Post by Jon Pace