Thursday, July 01, 2010

A Unique Talent

I will always remember when Walter Matthau died. It was 10 years ago today.

But, in an unorganized kind of way that might have appealed to his signature character, Oscar Madison, I couldn't say for sure whether I heard about it on the day he actually died or the day after.

You see, I had just moved into the apartment in which I still live, and there were boxes of possessions piled around the place. I'm not sure if the cable had been hooked up yet. I know I didn't have phone service.

July 1, 2000, was a Saturday. My brother and I had moved most of my belongings the day before, so I spent most of that Saturday unpacking and arranging things. It's possible that I had my radio plugged in. If I did — and if I happened to switch the radio on — it's possible that I heard about Matthau's death on the radio. I simply have no memory of that.

What I do remember is going to the nearby grocery store the next day to get some supplies and seeing Matthau's obituary on the front page of the Sunday paper.

And a flood of memories washed over me.

He was a unique talent.
  • I remembered the first time I ever saw Matthau on the big screen. It was in "The Odd Couple," and seeing that movie today brings back fond memories of two ladies who were very important to me — my mother and her mother.

    They both loved that movie, especially my grandmother, as I recalled here a few months ago. But, to tell you the truth, I think she was always a big fan of Walter Matthau.

    And, frankly, who didn't like Matthau? Even when he was a young man, he seemed to be the personification of a grumpy old man — crabby, hunched over, kinda seedy — with big ears and a Nixonesque jaw that seemed designed to make audiences laugh. He was made for comedy.

  • In fact, though, he was equally agile at both drama and comedy — as I was to learn when I went to college and began watching movies from early in his career, like "Fail–Safe."
But he really had a flair for comedy, especially when he was paired with someone who had a flair for it, too, like George Burns in "The Sunshine Boys." You can watch it today, 35 years after it was made, and it's still as fresh and funny as it was in the mid–1970s.

That's probably the highest compliment anyone can pay to Matthau. Today, 10 years after his death, his performances are still as entertaining as ever.

Part of that, to be sure, is due to the wonderful writing that seemed to be ever present on his projects. And part of it certainly was thanks to the work of some talented directors.

But much of it was his own talent, skill — unique and brilliant and, oh, so missed.