At 79, Walter Matthau may be a screen legend — but to studio execs, the Oscar-winning star of ”Hanging Up” (opened Friday) is an insurance liability. After all, shortly after he finished shooting his scenes as a volatile alcoholic dad to on-screen siblings Meg Ryan, Diane Keaton, and Lisa Kudrow, Matthau suffered a three month long bout of pneumonia that forced him to dub dialogue from his hospital bed. Considering that Matthau (who has since fully recovered) also had a tumor removed in 1995, Sony was predictably worried about casting the elderly actor. ”The three actresses were set right away, but Walter wasn’t,” says writer/executive producer Ephron. ”There was a lot of arguing over who would play that part. It cost a complete fortune to insure Walter, and this movie isn’t a blockbuster film that anyone would just throw money at.”
But Keaton, who also directed the movie, put her foot down, a move that undoubtedly came as a surprise to studio brass. ”The studio gets excited about hiring Diane because they think, Hey, she’s charming and kind of famous and we can push her around,” says producer Laurence Mark. ”And all I can think is ‘If they only knew what they were in for,’ because she comes out swinging. And people were left thinking, my God, what happened to lovable Annie Hall?” Ephron says that Keaton refused to consider other actors, a move the actress-director feels paid off tenfold, especially when Matthau improvised dialogue on the set. ”Walter came up with beautiful stuff, it was like music the way he talks,” Keaton says. ”He’s rare, because he’s a real storyteller with an improvisational gift, unlike the rest of us.”
And senior citizenship hasn’t robbed Matthau of his spunkiness, either. During one scene in which his character is caught in bed with a new flame by his three daughters, ”He mooned us, just so you know. We saw his butt,” says Ryan. Surprisingly, the peep show got raves from Ryan. ”He’s very sexy. It’s all happening still for Walter.” They don’t call them golden years for nothin’.