JACK LEMMON AND WALTER MATTHAU
Inside the Odd Couple actors’ lifelong bond.
When Jack Lemmon met Walter Matthau in director Billy Wilder’s office as they prepared to co-star for the first time in 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, “My father found the brother he’d always wanted in Walt,” Jack’s son, Chris Lemmon, tells Closer. Two weeks later, Walter suffered a heart attack, and Jack rushed to his bedside to see if he could help. Walter gave Jack an envelope and told him to give it to a man outside Fox studios the next day. “This guy with a pushed-up nose and cauliflower ears comes up, rips open the envelope, thumbs through a stack of bills and says to my dad, ‘Tell your buddy he’ll live to play the ponies again,’” Chris recalls. “Pop paid off Walter’s bookie! It was instant brotherhood.”
It was the beginning of a beautiful and unique friendship. The duo made 10 films together, including two Odd Couple and two Grumpy Old Men comedies, and formed an even stronger bond in real life. “They were opposites — Jack was WASPy, from Harvard, and my dad was Jewish, from the Lower East Side,” Walter’s son, Charlie Matthau, tells Closer. “But they had the same sense of humor and could finish each other’s sentences. Their love for each other was a great treasure in both their lives.”
Much like the characters they played, Jack and Walter got a kick out of needling each other. “Jack loved that Walter was accident-prone, and one day Walter got his fingers caught in the screen door, and I heard this laughing,” Grumpier Old Men director Howard Deutch remembers fondly. “I turn around and it’s Jack rolling on the ground laughing like a 2-year-old. This was their relationship. They loved each other but fought every second of the day. And it was absolutely magic when they were together in the frame.”
While they were shooting one of the five films they made with Wilder, Walter suffered a more serious accident when he fell rehearsing a physical comedy scene. “Walter screams and Jack goes running to him and looks down at him and he’s gray,” Deutch shares. “Jack says, ‘Are you comfortable?’ He puts his coat over Walter, who says, ‘I make a living.’ And everybody laughs.”
The pair had just as much fun off
THE COMICS PLAYED ODD COUPLES, BUT THEY WERE PERFECTLY MATCHED IN REAL LIFE
camera. “We would go over to the Matthaus on the weekends, and they would shoot pool or watch sports,” Jack’s daughter, Courtney, tells Closer. “They were hysterically funny and had a blast.” Adds Michael Freedland, author of Some Like It Cool: The Charmed Life of Jack Lemmon, “They would play cards, and Walter would watch Jack play the piano. It was like The Odd Couple, only Walter was always immaculately dressed. They loved each other, and very often you can’t explain love.”
After more than a quarter century of friendship, the pair experienced a joint career renaissance when they reteamed for 1993’s surprise hit Grumpy Old Men. “My dad said the script was the biggest piece of crap he’d ever read, and there was no way he would ever do it, but I talked him into it,” Charlie reveals. “He missed what he and Jack would bring to it, not only in terms of making it funny,
but the warmth of it.”
As much as moviegoers loved the comedic geniuses, Jack and Walter were always each other’s best audiences. “It would take me five rehearsals before I could even get a take because Jack couldn’t look at Walter without laughing,” says Deutch. “Walter wouldn’t help Jack, either. He would just do what he knew would make Jack laugh. So I couldn’t do anything!”
A longtime smoker and drinker, Walter battled heart disease and was hospitalized in 2000. Jack raced to his side again, often bringing pet poodle Chloe into the ICU at UCLA Medical Center, but Walter died at 79 on July 1, 2000. “Daddy was devastated when we lost Walter,” Courtney says. Still, Jack pulled himself together and delivered a moving eulogy at Walter’s funeral. “Jack said, ‘Walter was my best friend, and every time we were together was magic time,’ ” Deutch says. “Grown men whipped out handkerchiefs — everyone was crying.”
One year later, nearly to the day, Jack succumbed to cancer on June 27, 2001, at 76. “You’ve got to think a lot of that was a broken heart,” says Chris, who’s currently touring in a one-man tribute to his dad, A Twist of Lemmon. “It doesn’t get any more difficult than having your best friend die.” Jack was interred near his buddy in Westwood Park Memorial Village, the same cemetery where Walter is buried.
Thankfully, their deep connection remains preserved forever on film. “They both could do a take 50 different ways, and each would be interesting,” says Charlie, who directed the duo in 1995’s The Grass Harp. “They had such great chemistry together — they were one in a billion.”
The mutual affection Jack and Walter felt wasn’t acting. “They adored each other,” says Chris. “It was a true love affair.”