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Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men: The 73-year-old in the holiday box office hit

Walter Matthau in ‘Grumpy Old Men’: The 73-year-old in the holiday box office hit

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Situated not far from Ronald Reagan’s house, a delicate stream babbling through its lush gardens, the Hotel Bel-Air is almost blinding in its elegance. Nearby, a graceful white swan (no kidding) perches on a perfect little waterfall. But here on the patio is Walter Matthau, whose magnificently rumpled presence gives even this place a certain air du pool hall.

The star of Grumpy Old Men has reduced his Bloody Mary to a celery stick and is now chasing it down with a Beck’s beer. ”Ummm-mmm,” says Matthau, 73, massaging the rim of the glass with his shar-pei jowls. ”It’s good. It would have to be good since it’s poison.” Before long he’s holding forth on diet. ”Castor oil can cause constipation,” he declares just before his lobster ravioli arrives. ”The bowel cannot absorb water. I think that’s my problem. I can no longer have a bowel movement without a lot of help. I’m sure that will be the lead: ‘Walter Matthau unable to crap without help from Fleet’s enema.”’

Such unfettered discourse has made Matthau, throughout his 46 years in show business (and 56 films), consistently good copy. But his career has been less consistent. He spent two decades mostly in character parts, finally reaching stardom on Broadway as The Odd Couple‘s slovenly Oscar to Art Carney’s fussy Felix in 1965, only to be slowed down by a severe heart attack. He and Jack Lemmon starred in the 1968 film version, but Matthau turned down the Odd Couple TV series because movies were ”paying a lot more money for less work.”

Some of the films he chose were better (The Bad News Bears) than others (Little Miss Marker), but by the early ’90s he had been relegated mostly to TV movies.

Then last summer he returned to the big screen, as Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace. Some think it’s the role God invented him for, but he was in it for the dough. ”It’s a lousy thing for a movie star to be running out of money,” he growls. ”Nobody believes you.”

Grumpy makes his comeback official. It’s been holding steady among the five top-grossing films since its December release, pulling in $34 million so far—a welcome comedy confection among heavy holiday fare. Plus it has the best end credits running, with Burgess Meredith, age 84, rattling off filthy euphemisms for sexual intercourse-lines that both Lemmon and Matthau refused to say. (”They gave ’em to Burgess because he’s too old to deny them,” says Matthau.)

And there’s the movie’s foolproof recipe: Matthau and Lemmon, back in their Oscar and Felix modes as two ice-fishing codgers fighting over Ann-Margret, 52, as an eternally sprightly sex kitten who frolicks half-naked in the snow (the role God invented her for). This marks the seventh Matthau-Lemmon movie—including Kotch, which Lemmon directed in 1971, and 1991’s JFK, in which they both had cameos. ”Walter and Jack come up to each other’s level,” says Grumpy director Donald Petrie. ”Walter, who is always wacko, is grounded by Jack’s being so centered and well rehearsed.” Lemmon on Matthau: ”That face really is the map of the world. It has every country and every emotion and every person that ever lived in it.”

Sorrow also flows through those astounding crevices. Matthau has described his childhood in New York City as ”a nightmare-a dreadful, horrible, stinking nightmare.” Abandoned by their father at age 3, he and his brother, Henry, were shuffled from tenement to tenement just ahead of the rent collector. When he became a Broadway success, he once said, he quickly gambled away $183,000. By gambling, he was ”playing terribly painful but pleasant childhood games of insecurity, the way I used to play with the idea that maybe my mother wouldn’t come home from the job and feed me.”

Now, sipping espresso and waiting rather impatiently for the hotel waiter to bring him his chocolate cake, he seems to have made peace with his addictions: ”My wife is a depraved spender and I’m a degenerate gambler,” he says unapologetically. ”For Grumpy Old Men, I’m gonna make $3 million. You know how long that lasts? Six months. Money is flowing like Niagara Falls into the s– house. And if I get lucky I’ll die before I go broke.”

The depraved spender is his wife of 34 years, Carol Matthau, a socialite who claims to be Truman Capote’s inspiration for Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and who published her memoirs, Among the Porcupines, in 1992. The Matthaus often show up at the snazziest old-guard Hollywood parties—an unlikely milieu for a man whose on-screen persona conjures dingy undershorts. She also found riches in the wake of poverty, and they found each other after failed marriages (hers to writer William Saroyan, his to actress Grace Johnson). They have one son, Charlie, a film producer; Matthau has two children from his first marriage: David, a radio announcer in New Jersey, and Jenny, a gourmet-cooking teacher in New York.

Matthau says he expects to star in a Dennis sequel. ”They made me sign for it before the first one,” he says. ”That’s to prevent me from becoming another Macaulay Culkin, asking for $8 billion.” Other work depends on the climate: ”I don’t want to go to places that are too cold or too hot. Or Grumpy Old Men Work for the CIA.”

Finally, his cake arrives. Then the bill. ”Now I know where $3 million goes in six months,” he says, and ends the interview with his own query: ”You got enough s— to write an article?”

A few days later, when he’s told EW is running a Matthau profile, Lemmon says, ”That’s your problem. I can’t help what that asshole does.” Still, he offers this story: ”Years ago Carol talked Walter into going to Dachau (a Nazi death camp). They started fighting on the train about something or other. They went through Dachau, still not speaking. They were still arguing when they got back to the hotel. When they got up to their rooms, Walter said to her, absolutely straight-faced, ‘I just want you to know that you ruined my trip to Dachau!”’

By now Lemmon almost can’t breathe, he’s laughing so hard.

”Now that’s funny,” he says. ”And I’m sure underneath, whether Walter was serious or not, he knew it was funny.”