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Catch Up on Not-Always-So-Odd Couple's Best Hits

April 09, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are a couple of terrific actors who have become one of cinema's most beloved comedy teams. With their 10th film together, "The Odd Couple II," opening Friday, it's a perfect time to catch up on their other collaborations.

It was legendary writer-director Billy Wilder who first teamed up the two in his biting 1966 comedy "The Fortune Cookie" (MGM, $20). Previously, Lemmon had starred in Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment" and "Irma La Douce." Matthau, who made his film debut in 1955's "The Kentuckian," was best known for his roles as heavies in such films as "Charade."

In "Fortune Cookie," Lemmon plays an earnest TV cameraman who suffers a minor injury during a football game. Matthau, in a role that won him an Oscar for best supporting actor, is his brother-in-law, a seedy, shyster lawyer who convinces Lemmon to pursue an expensive lawsuit.

Two years later, they created box-office magic as mismatched roomies in "The Odd Couple" (Paramount, $15), which Neil Simon adapted from his Broadway hit comedy. Matthau reprised his stage success as the slovenly sports writer Oscar and Lemmon is perfectly cast as his friend Felix, an obsessively neat, hypochondriacal photographer.

Lemmon's only directorial effort was 1971's "Kotch" (Fox, $10), a sentimental comedy drama in which Matthau plays an elderly man who refuses to let his children put him out to pasture. Though Lemmon doesn't appear in the film, his wife, Felicia Farr, does.

The duo seems to be having a great time in "The Front Page" (Universal, $15), Wilder's 1974 adaptation of the Charles MacArthur-Ben Hecht Broadway classic. Matthau plays the overbearing, blustery managing editor of a newspaper; Lemmon is his prize reporter. Despite their rapport, "Front Page" seems forced and off-kilter. Carol Burnett, Susan Sarandon and Vincent Gardenia head the supporting cast.

Reviews were mixed to negative for their next outing, 1981's "Buddy Buddy" (MGM, $20), which was Wilder's last film. This black comedy, based on the French hit "A Pain in the A . . .," casts Matthau as a professional hit man whose latest assignment is threatened by a suicidal stranger (Lemmon).

It was a full decade before their next film, Oliver Stone's controversial "J.F.K." (Warner, $25). Both appear in small cameos and share no screen time together.

The surprise success of 1993's "Grumpy Old Men" (Warner, $15) proved the two still have the comedic chops they possessed three decades ago. In this slapstick romantic comedy, Lemmon and Matthau play neighbors, former boyhood friends who have been feuding for years. Their squabbles heat up when the two widowers start vying for the affections of their new neighbor, a vivacious widow (Ann-Margret). Burgess Meredith is a real hoot as Lemmon's rather ribald father.

Two years later, Lemmon and Matthau starred in the fair-to-middling sequel "Grumpier Old Men" (Warner, $20). This time around, Matthau gets the girl, played by none other than Sophia Loren.

The 1995 "The Grass Harp" (New Line), a lyrical adaptation of Truman Capote's novella, is a real change of pace for the team. Set in the South in the 1930s and '40s, the nostalgic drama finds Matthau quite believable as a retired small-town judge who falls in love with a sweet spinster (Piper Laurie). Lemmon is featured in a smaller role as a shady scam artist out to fleece Laurie's shrewd, rich sister (Sissy Spacek). Matthau's son Charles directed.

Though it didn't exactly burn up the box office last summer, their comedy "Out to Sea" (Fox) is still a lot of fun. In order to make money and meet women, Matthau, who has a weakness for the ponies, persuades Lemmon to join him as a dance instructor on a luxury liner. Widower Lemmon finds love with Gloria De Haven and bachelor Matthau falls head over heels for Dyan Cannon. Donald O'Connor, Elaine Stritch, Hal Linden and Brent Spiner also star.

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