Walter John Matthau was an American actor best known for his role as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple and his frequent collaborations with Odd Couple star Jack Lemmon, as well as his role as Coach Buttermaker in the 1976 comedy The Bad News Bears. He won an Academy Award for his performance in the Billy Wilder film The Fortune Cookie.
Matthau was born in New York City’s Lower East Side on October 1, 1920, the son of Rose Berolsky, who worked in a sweatshop, and Milton Matthau, an electrician and peddler, both Jewish immigrants. His surname has often incorrectly been listed as Matuschanskayasky. As a young boy, Walter attended a Jewish non-profit sleepaway camp, Tranquillity Camp, where he first began acting in the shows the camp would stage on Saturday nights. He also attended Surprise Lake Camp.
During World War II, Matthau served in the U.S. Army Air Forces with the Eighth Air Force in England as a B-24 Liberator radioman-gunner, in the same 453rd Bombardment Group as James Stewart. He reached the rank of staff sergeant and became interested in acting. He took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York with the influential German director Erwin Piscator. He often joked that his best early review came in a play where he posed as a derelict. One reviewer said, “The others just looked like actors in make-up, Walter Matthau really looks like a skid row bum!” Matthau was a respected stage actor for years in such fare as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and A Shot in the Dark. He won the 1962 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a play.
In 1952, Matthau appeared in the pilot of Mr. Peepers with Wally Cox. For reasons unknown he used the name Leonard Elliot. His role was of the gym teacher Mr. Wall. In 1955, he made his motion picture debut as a whip-wielding bad guy in The Kentuckian opposite Burt Lancaster.