Sunday, August 26, 2007

Walter Matthau Cleans The Pool at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club

by Bart Bull
(published in The Washington Post, Arena, others)

Walter Matthau is cutting a deal. No, Walter Matthau is slicing a deal. Across the table is a gentleman who looks like a movie producer. “I’m going to talk to you in code,” Matthau tells him, “and see if you understand.” The producer says he doesn’t understand.

Matthau is carving the air with big red hands. “I’m talking about I want four parts of the pie and you’re talking about three parts. Do you hear?” If anyone ever seemed in his element, clam happy, at peace, it’s Walter Matthau at this moment, slicing movie pie in the air.

“Now wait a minute. Of those three parts, think about one part having pure raisins in it. Pure raisins. Now do you understand me?” The producer looks studiously blank.

No matter; Matthau begins again. “Awright, we’re talking about a pie, right? Now I want four parts of the pie, you only want to give me three. If I take three parts, I want one part to have pure raisins in it....” He’s really doing a tremendous job of building his special piece of solid raisin-packed pie right there in the air of the Beverly Hills Tennis Club dining room, but somehow the producer is unable to see it.

Never mind. Right now Walter is busy describing the funniest thing he’s ever seen in his entire life, which is the big gastric ulcer scene from the Japanese film Akira. A photographer would like Mr. Mathau to move outside near the pool for a few shots and Mr. Matthau is glad to oblige but first he’d like to show her his leg. He pulls his pants-leg up past his knee and displays a calf swaddled in a surf-style Body Glove wetsuit and gives her the full and complete details of how he tore two fibers in the— he savors every syllable — gastrocnemius muscle above the Achilles tendon while running across the risky Pacific Coast Highway. It was like getting shot in the leg, he says, and he sows her the extra five-eighths of an inch he’s had added to to the heel of his right shoe to relieve the pain.

Handicap established, he gets up slowly, glacially, eternally, creaking and groaning out of his chair and then stumping out to the poolside tables, looking like nothing so much as Captain Red, peg-legged pirate protagonist of Matthau’s latest movie, Roman Polanski’s Pirates.
Pirates are a matter Matthau researched extensively when he took the role of Captain Red, finding, according to his favorite book, that most pirates were homosexuals, if only through necessity.

“Well, what did you do in the 17th Century if you weren’t an aristocrat, if you weren’t a land-owner. You were either in commerce or in the serving class. I think these guys in the back of their minds knew they would have a surprisingly delightful but short life if they were bandits.”

The pirate he plays in Polanski’s movie, however, lives anything but a short life, scheming, dealing, wheedling and taking huge risks, but always surviving, always plunging onward. The allegorically-inclined might find in Pirates a parallel to the life of either Polanski or Matthau or perhaps both, while the more trusting reader of movie studio press kits will discover that Matthau was on his absolute best actorly behavior for Pirates, bending mildly before Polanski’s genius, willing and eager to accept the director’s every word of guidance.
For a moment, Matthau himself is capable of buying into that charming fantasy as well, since it’s almost to lovely to deny. “Yeah, you almost have to know that Polanski’s the star of any film that he’s working in. some people have that need and that magnetism” You can tell it’s an alien concept to Matthau. “It’s a Polanski film is what it is, and, uh, sometimes you fight with that, all the time knowing there’s no way you’re going to win. But it’s the fight that you like, and the revelations that come from it. I fight with my wife a lot, and afterwards I know more than I did before I started, because in the middle of the fight I extricate truths that I didn’t know exited or I wanted confirmed.” He says it, “confoirmed,” exactly as Walter Matthau would.

“Well, with a guy like Polanski, that happens all the time. Polanski, who is used to getting his way, and dominating every facet of the making of a movie....” and now Matthau is warming to the subject. “ Well, if you challenge him in some way, on some piece of direction he may give you, if the piece of direction has some social disharmony, you say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ And then you start an argument for a half hour. Then he says, ‘Well, alright, I don’t agree with you but do it whatever way you want because I have no more time to discuss it.” And then you walk away and ahave a long face”-- and Walter Matthau can have a long long face -- “and you do it badly. Then he says, “Hey, you’re doing it badly now, is there something wrong?’ And then you have another hour’s discussion. Well, then you go to dinner.

“You see, I always did that. I remember it was a picture called Voice In The Mirror that I did with Richard Egan and Julie. . . Julie London? I had a role in it, I played a doctor.”

And that was appropriate enough; after a couple of coronaries and a quadruple bypass and a pair of bouts with hepatitis and a near-miss on a broken neck doing a stunt-on a picture with Jack Lemmon -- not to mention his grievous torn gastrocnemius -- Matthau pals around with doctors, cardiologists and cardio-vascular surgeons, and even here by the pool he’s wearing a t-shirt from Centinela Hospital Health Center.

Anyway, he was making this picture with Julie London and Richard Egan. “And I had a line in it about alcoholism being an incurable disease and I objected to the line, but I mainly objected to start a fight because I wasn’t introduced to Julie London or Riochard Egan and I didn’t know the director very well. I had just come in from New York and I wanted to start a rumpus so I could get to know people and have them argue with me. And so Richard Egan explained, ‘Listen, he’s not really fighting. He’s a New York actor, and he wants to get tot he bottom of things.’ Well, the director apologized then, and said he wasn’t a read director, that he was a cutter.

The point of this story is about Roman Polanski, and now that he’s gotten to it, it seems only too apparent: “Polanski is very uncomfortable unless he’s in control.”

The photographer would like it if Walter would take off his sunglasses and Walter is perfectly glad to oblige but he has a theory about having your picture taken. He’d like to share it. “You must never just pose. You must always say something to the camera like, ‘You see that camera? ‘ He’s pointing right down the lens. ‘That’s a rotten camera. That camera’s no good. It’s one of the worst. That camera sells for a dollar thrity-five cents.’ You know?

The photographer would also like it if Walter would go over closer to the pool. “No, that would be fakery, giving people the idea that I’m an oudoor person, a pool person. I was once a pool man, I cleaned pools but . . . “ Someone suggests a shot of him cleaning the pool (his character in The Bad News Bears was a pool cleaner, at any rate, whether he ever did or not) and he’s taken with the idea, fakery or not. “Hmmmm. Cleaning the pool. You want a shot? Wait a minute, I have to hobble over. . . .” The grunts and groans begin again, the richly dramatic hoisting and leveraging from the deck chair.

When he comes back Walter has a story about acting, a Yiddish dialect story about the little guy who comes in to the theater and says, “Igscuse me, do you do here the auditions for Hamlet, the title role ?’ and before you know it he’s delivering stentorian pear-shaped To Be Or Not To Be’s with the best of them. Better, even “Better than Olivier, better than Gielgud, better than Barrymore......” And of course everybody’s impressed and amazed and wants to know how the little guy does it, to which the kicker is, [Yiddish accented] “That’s acting.”
“An actor is supposed to have a lot of different parts about him, that’s why he’s an actor. If you wanna be, in quotes, a “movie star,” then you have to be typecast, because the banks are not gong to put up money for anything new or strange. They’ll put up money for a recognizable product.”

And which is he?

“Well, I’ve fallen into the trap of “movie star,” I’m afraid. You see, you can’t earn, just being an actor, the money that I’ve earned as a “movie star,” and live in a big house, with a lot of flowers and a swimming pool and a lot of nice objects, furniture and stuff, and have a nice car . . . . I couldn’t really earn that as an actor. So I pretend that I’m still an actor.

“And I pretend that I’m still encrusted with the veneer of desire to be truthful. I’m not. I’m really a sort of businessman-whore. Pretending.”

The money, of course, is not just for big houses with flowers and swimming pools and the answer is nowhere near so easy. Matthau loves acting, always has, always, and he’s always needed money, lots of it. Always.

As a kid, at ten or eleven, he sat on the toilet in a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and read Shakespeare, practicing his melliflous pear-shaped tones until his speech became so notable that his brother Henry had to explain him to the other kids.

Walter got in a lot of fights as a kid -- he broke the young Rocky Graziano’s nose one day outside the 10th Street Boys Club -- and for years he told his interviewers that the size of his nose was due to “bulbous cartilege” developed during his early years after being punched in the nose so often. He told them as well that he was raised in an orphanage; in fact, his father Milton Matthow (Americanized from Melas Matuschansky) abandoned his mother when Walter was three; his mother supported the family and Walter was deposited at the Daughters of Israel Day Nursery, which is not to say that it didn’t feel like an orphanage.

The kid who was fascinated with acting got a job in a Yiddish theater on Second Avenue selling soda and ice cream. Tall for his age -- at 12, he was six-foot-two and weighed 85 pounds -- someone onstage drafted him to fill in at an adult’s role. He’d play his part, strip off his costume just before intermission, then run up and down the aisles dispensing drinks and candy bars. Already a mix of businessman and actor, he got fifty cents a night for his onstage work.

“Fifty cents a night, fifty cents a performance, would be four dollars and fifty cents a week, nine performances, and I would only make two dollars and fifty cents a week as a soda or ice cream vendor. And in this way I could make six or seven dollars a week, which was a great deal of money then, especially for a twelve or thirteen year old boy. Half I gave to my mother, who would use it wisely, and the other half I’d love gambling. Because I enjoyed gambling, I enjoyed the discomfort and the misery and the aggravation of losing the money. And I still do.”
Walter Matthau’s gambling is legenary, and his debts are a matter of record. He’s told interviewers over and over again throughout the years that he’s quit gambling for good; he’s told them again and again the exact figures he’s dropped, althought these days, after at least one extortion attempt, he’s slightly, just slightly, more reticent. (George Burns once said, ”When he makes a $500 bet he won’t tell you, he’s ashamed it’s so small.”)

In the late Fifties, long before he’d achieved anything like fame as an actor, much less as a movie star, he once dropped $183,000 in two weeks --- and spent the next six years paying it off. He started his second marriage owing $175,000 to a bookie while paying $60,000 ayear alimony and child support. And in 1958 he dumped $48,000 on a ball game between the Yankees and Baltimore.

He did and still enjoys the pain of losing. “It’s an emotion that’s much larger than the pleasantry of winning. Winning is a small emotion compared to losing.” One of his cardiologist acquaintances has infomred him that at a certain race track there’s always a heart attack every day and the victim is always clutching a losing ticket. “Never a winning ticket. Never seen a guy get a heart attack from a winner.”

Even with his own history of heart attacks and his voluminous file of disastrous losses, Matthau also has a reputation as a hardnosed negotiator, a tenacious and unflappable dealmaker, a winner. His salary has climbed steadily whenever it wasn’t skyrocketing; his son Charlie has been worked into a half a dozen parts in his movies and even received credit at age sixteen as an associate producer. His bold litigation -- some might call it piratical -- against Universal for a larger slice of the pie when The Bad News Bears was sold to television was settled lucratively out of court.

For a guy with a big urge to lose, with an entire philosophy formed around his need to lose, he’s done pretty well by his career.

“I guess maybe one balances the other. Like the fellow in the Somerset Maugham story who goes for a job and the guy says, ‘Well, I see you at the club -- don’t you win a lot of money at poker ’ he says, ‘Yes, I do, but I lose it at bridge.’ Maybe one helps the other. Maybe I want to work all the time and so I force myself by steering the course, of getting money, losing it, giving it away to charities, needing money again, gong to work again, havng to constantly replenish the coffers. . . . maybe this is what keeps me going.”

Because he does, after all, love acting, love to think and talk and theorize abut acting -- although it’s not necessarily his own acting he loves. “when I see some of my pictures, I wince at the groveling for a laugh. ‘ Please laugh, this is funny now,’ and I just hate myself for doing that. But now I’m getting better -- see, I don’t think anybody can really reach an understanding of how a character should behave until he’s at least eighty, eighty-five. And by that time he’s usually physically unable to do what he’s supposed to.”

“All this humility about his own work doesn’t mean he’s any easier on any of the players in his life. Maybe one day he’ll get back around to that play he was going to write, The Critics’ Murder Case, the one where the curtains part on opening night and the actor comes out with a Thompson sub-machine gun and mows down every pen-pusher in the house.

And then there’s his agent, the one he once called a first-class idiot in print. “Oh, yeah, he is a moron of the first rank. He’s an imbecile.” Why keep him on ? "Because I think all agents are imbeciles and since I can scream at him and call him all kinds of names, you know. Another agent might take umbrage, get insulted, have feelings.”

The businessman in him appreciates a guy who can take it; the actor enjoys booting an agent’s butt; the habitual loser likes the fact that the agent always leaves the room with his piece of the action in his pocket; and the movie star is pleased to see that when they need a Walter Matthau type, with the squinty eyes and the lump of a Walter Matthau nose, they’ve got to come to Walter Matthau and to nobody else

“My nose. Speaking of my nose, at $:30 I have to have another biopsy on my nose because the pathologist took a biopsy last week and he lost it. He lost a piece of my nose. A piece of my nose is floating around somewhere. They have to take another piece off. I don’t know why I’m letting him do this. He thinks maybe there’s some basal carcinoma there.” The gambler in him seems pleased with the risk.

Matthau’s nose is, in an odd sort of way, his fortune. It kept him from being a movie star, it helped him become a movie star. In the old Hollywood days of Tab and Ty and Rock and Rip, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper took Walter under her wing and gave him a piece of advice: “Get it fixed, Walter.” His mother felt the same way.

And in Pirates, Polanski seems almost fixated with it at times, shooting upwards into nostrils that seem large enough to sail a square-rigged CinemaScope brigantine through. “My mother used to apologize for my nose. She used to say, ‘This is my son Walter and the reason his nose is so large is because he used to have a lot of fistfights when he was a boy and they punched him in the nose a lot and so he developed a lot of cartilage.”

Bulbous cartilage? “Bulbous Cartilage! That’s a good name for an actor -- Sir Bulbous Cartilage!”

“I had a lot of fistfights, no question aboutit. I picked up my mother’s excuse for why my nose was so large. I keep looking in the mirror, you know, every day. Is it really so large ? Doesn’t seem so large to me. Then again, I’d look kind of silly if I had a smaller nose.”

His nose has been his fortune in a way, but if that’s all there was to Walter Matthau, they could hire Karl Malden. As to what exactly it is that makes for a Walter Matthau type, Walter Matthau says he’s totally in the dark. Or almost totally. He has a thought.

“An actor is supposed to have a lot of different parts about him, that’s why he’s an actor. If I was going to play Walter Matthau, I’d do it badly. I wouldn’t know where to start. Or if I did, I’d pretend not to know because it would be too painful.”

And with his thumb at the edge of one nostril and his forefinger at the edge of the other, he tugs on his nose and listens to hear how that sounds, hear how it plays.

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