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Grumpy Old Man? This Sweet Guy?

(Heck, Walter Matthau's Been Grumpy His Whole Life -- And Loves It.

December 08, 1996|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein's last piece for the magazine was a profile of Francis Ford Coppola

While a makeup woman touches up a razor scratch on his cheek, Walter Matthau leans over and whispers in Jack Lemmon's ear: "This time I'm gonna say 'No-Neck O'Brien.' "

The old troupers are filming a scene from "Out to Sea," a comedy in which Matthau, the consummate con man, cajoles his pal into joining him on a Caribbean cruise ship comfortably stocked with free booze and rich old women. When Matthau produces a pair of deluxe tickets, Lemmon eyes them suspiciously and says, "Where'd you get these?"

According to the script, Matthau is supposed to remind Lemmon of a mutual acquaintance, saying, "Remember No-Neck? He finally got busted, so I took these in lieu of the cash he owed me."

But Matthau--who massages dialogue like a baker kneading bread, experimenting with different rhythms, dropping a word here, adding a phrase there--has decided that "No-Neck O'Brien" has a nicer ring.

After he and Lemmon play the scene, director Martha Coolidge gently tries to steer Matthau back to the original language. She cites legal problems with clearing the name: "You always get in trouble when you do that. There might be a real No-Neck O'Brien out there."

Matthau nods agreeably without agreeing to anything. "You know what the most common name in the world is?" he asks rhetorically. "Chang. There's 1.2 million Changs in the world."

"What about Jones?" a crew member wonders. "That's a common name."

"Only in the National Football League," Matthau replies. The actor launches into a monologue about first-generation immigrants to America and their unorthodox use of the English language, which concludes with his telling a joke about a man who has an affair with a midget virgin.

Finally, Coolidge nudges him back to work, having extracted a promise to avoid using No-Neck O'Brien. The next take goes beautifully, with Matthau wheedling Lemmon into opening his gift envelope. "See," Matthau says, jabbing a knobby finger at the brochure. "Deluxe accommodations."

Lemmon casts a wary eye at Matthau: "Where'd you get these?"

Matthau responds with great authority: "Remember No-Neck Chang?"

Lemmon and the crew hoot with laughter. Matthau glances at Coolidge, his face bright with schoolboyish mischief. "Geez," he says. "Was that me, [messing] up all the dialogue?"

*

Walter Matthau is more than just a curmudgeon. at age 76, he's as incorrigible and distrustful of authority as any willful young Hollywood brat. Age has sharpened his tongue and freed him of idle movie-star vanity. One day, Matthau walks past "Out to Sea" producer John Davis, who is chatting on his cellular phone. "Hey, Walter," Davis says.

"I'm on the phone with . . . ." Davis says the name of a young studio hotshot.

Matthau keeps walking, muttering over his shoulder, "Tell him to [screw] himself."

Here is a man who makes the world meet him on his terms. Holed up in his trailer between scenes, Matthau strips down to purple-striped undershorts and flirts shamelessly with his bevy of female assistants. Wolfing down a second helping of lasagna, he tells X-rated jokes and spins stories about boxers, bookies and crazy shrinks.

During a telephone interview with a trade reporter, Matthau suddenly bellows, "Coming! Yes, I'll be right there!" as if he has been summoned back to work. It's a ruse--Matthau just wants to get off the phone. When he hangs up, he beams happily. "Look at me," he boasts, "a 76-year-old man in demand."

No lie.

In a business notoriously obsessed with youth and sex appeal, this aging actor with a stooped walk and bulldog jowls is a bigger movie star than at any time in his 50 years in show business. At an age when most peers are retired, ignored or relegated to old-geezer bit parts, Matthau is Hollywood's new $5-million man. Having starred in two "Grumpy Old Men" films that made more than $70 million each, Matthau and Lemmon are earning a hefty $5 million apiece for their co-starring roles as cruise-ship Romeos in "Out to Sea." And the two will make $6 million next year when they return as stars of a third "Grumpy" film.

The "Grumpy Old Men" series proved that over-40 moviegoers will come out in droves for films, especially ones offering a star with Matthau's likability and broad comic charm. "Grumpier Old Men" actually did better than the first film, inspiring a variety of knockoffs, including "Out to Sea," which is due next summer, and "My Fellow Americans," coming this Christmas and starring Lemmon and James Garner as bickering ex-Presidents.

"Older people going to the movies is big business," says Rob Friedman, head of worldwide marketing at Warner Films. "They don't necessarily rush out to see movies the first weekend, but they go--and then they go back again. My mother is a classic example. She goes to the movies three times a week. And if she likes something, she goes back with her friends."

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