Oscar- and Tony-winner Walter Matthau returns as the rumpled but savvy lawyer Harmon Cobb in Sunday's CBS movie "Incident in a Small Town." Matthau introduced the character four years ago in the Emmy Award-winning "The Incident," in which Cobb defended a German POW in a murder trial during World War II. The second in the series, "Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore," aired two years ago.
Veteran character actor Harry Morgan, best known as Col. Sherman Potter on "MASH" and officer Bill Gannon on "Dragnet," reprises his role as Cobb's friend and partner, Judge Stoddard Bell.
In person, Matthau, 73, and Morgan, 78, were anything but "grumpy old men." They seemed to genuinely enjoy each other's company over a recent lunch at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Though Morgan seemed a lot like Sherman Potter in civvies, Matthau loved to shock his unsuspecting luncheon guest with his ribald sense of humor. He concluded the lunch by unbuttoning his shirt and showing off a scar from recent pacemaker surgery.
Times Staff Writer Susan King, who blushed a bit more than normal during an interview, talked with the two about their friendship, "Incident in a Small Town," canned salmon and homemade ice cream.
Did you two ever work together before doing "The Incident"?
Harry Morgan: No, but we used to meet at Dick Widmark's Christmas party.
Walter Matthau: We used to sit near him because you could hear his voice. It was very soothing.
You have a great rapport.
WM: That word is not rapport. It is rappaport. We have a great rappaport together.
HM: The last picture was just fantastic, I thought. Everything was great.
What made it great?
HM: The location. We worked out on a farm for a couple of weeks. It was just delightful.
WM: We passed a place where we got homemade ice cream every day.
HM: It was about an hour outside of Toronto.
WM: Magnificent countryside. You can just taste that cherry vanilla.
HM: That's right, but they had other flavors. We just had a great time.
WM: \o7 (As lunch arrives, Matthau looks at his guest.)\f7 Aren't you going to eat anything?
No. I'm fine.
WM: We are going to eat and you are not eating. You can't eat this marvelous can of salmon? I love it. \o7 (Matthau breaks up the salmon the waiter gave him with his fork and puts it into his salad.)\f7
HM: I love it, too, but I don't eat it very often. I like it better than fresh salmon.
WM: It's delicious. My mother used to give me 16 cents to get a can of salmon. Bumblebee. I'd go downstairs (to the grocery store) because I was afraid to walk three blocks to get it. It wasn't safe. So, I would have a few pennies, and I would put in my own penny so I wouldn't have to walk three blocks. It was 17 cents downstairs. \o7 (Matthau glances over). \f7 Are you married?
WM: Why don't you start eating? You'll get married if you start eating.
Hmmmm. Going back to the movie, "Incident in a Small Town" takes place in 1953, six years after "Against Her Will."
HM: We seem to be very amicable when this thing starts. We have a good relationship and this time I have a problem. So I want to set out to solve it, and Walter insists on coming along with me to help out. And we go from there.
It sounds like an old-fashioned mystery.
HM: It's more of a whodunit. Walter figures it out. It gets very complicated.
WM: Why do they say whodunit? Shouldn't it be, whodidit?
HM: Yeah. It should be.
WM: But whodunit is better. But it do not sound good to me.
What drew you both to the first "Incident" movie?
HM: It was a terrific story.
WM: I liked the author's perception that most Germans were no good and that some were OK. That interested me. Usually, people try to palm off on you that Germans didn't want the Nazi regime. They embraced it--88% of them. Well, we need that escape hatch. You can't blame your lack of happiness on the majority, you have to blame it on some tiny minority like the Jew.
Walter, what makes Harry such a great actor? Harry, what makes Walter so special?
WM: I kept thinking he's Jack Lemmon. And then I look up and he's Harry Morgan.
HM: And he's Jack Webb. (laughs). No, I don't really think that. Walter's just a delight. He's a wonderful actor and a passable human being.
WM: I love not only working with Harry, I can't wait to go to dinner with him.
HM: We just have a great time. Often it's unspoken. Correct? And we both love Italian food. We had to up in Toronto.
WM: There are 500,000 Italians there and a million and a half restaurants it seems.
Both of you have done comedy and drama. Do you have a preference?
WM: My preference is non-comedic roles. They are so easy. Comedy is tough. Very hard. You notice I don't say serious roles.
HM: I didn't notice that.
WM: I will point it out to you.
HM: I've played everything you can think of. I used to do a lot of heavies, which I always enjoyed.
Do you think the quality of TV and features have gotten better or worse over the years?
HM: I think things have gotten worse. Much worse.
WM: Technically, it's better. But the story. They had stories. Stories about relationships between people. They didn't have "The Terminator 4." I saw that "Terminator" the other day. I couldn't believe that I was watching it. \o7 (Matthau looks over at his guest\f7 )\o7 . \f7 Do you want a cookie?
\o7 "Incident in a Small Town" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.\f7