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PLAYING THE HORSES WITH WALTER MATTHAU

I had this chat with the unflappable Matthau on an August afternoon in 1976, and it was more fun than a day at the races. --Guy Flatley


"People see an actor at the ballet, and right away he’s a ballet freak," says Walter Matthau in a wounded voice. "I happen to play the horses once in a while, so naturally that makes me a racetrack habitue."

The sensitive subject of gambling has come up because Mr. Matthau, whose penchant for picking four-legged losers is legendary, has just been cast in "Casey’s Shadow" as a trainer entrusted with the task of turning Alexis Smith’s horse into a million-dollar winner. Although Carol Sobieski’s comedy will begin shooting any day under the direction of Martin Ritt, Mr. Matthau is scarcely in a panic. Clearly the 52-year old actor is no slave to Stanislavsky, and he wouldn’t dream of traipsing around with some trainer to see what makes him tick.

"Besides, trainers are all different," he says from Hollywood, after polishing off a noon-time breakfast. "Some wear suits and ties, some wear jeans and cowboy boots. I went for a fitting the other day and the wardrobe man said, ‘What do you think this character should wear, Mr. Matthau?’ and I said, ‘Gee, I don’t know. Whatever you’ve got.’

"I’ve heard about all the research Al Pacino and Robert De Niro do for their roles, and I think they’re both excellent actors. I have a hunch, though, that most of these guys are just trying to convince the critics that they’re serious, hard-working actors. But I don’t have to throw myself into a role that way, because I’ve lived everything-–I’ve been a waiter, a gambler, a pimp, a murderer. I’m from the ghetto, and the only time I do any research is when I play aristocracy."

Mr. Matthau’s most recent comedies, "The Sunshine Boys" and "The Bad News Bears," attempted to make serious comments about the contemporary American scene. Will "Casey’s Shadow" strive for profundity?

"I think all my comedies are deep, and all my non-comedies are shallow. Comedy is always deeper than tragedy or melodrama, and it does make a statement. Everything makes a statement; every time you open your mouth, you make a statement. Unless you yawn. And even a yawn makes a statement; it says you’ve got a lack of oxygen."

What is the moral of this racetrack serio-comedy?



"The moral of the story is ‘Don’t worry if you compromise your principles, because everything is going to turn out O.K. in the end.’ You might say I play a character like Richard Nixon."

Mr. Matthau acknowledges that he has made career compromises. To atone for his artistic sins, he has occasionally returned to his roots, to the theater, as he did last year in a Los Angeles production of "Juno and the Paycock." "Screen acting is retirement acting, like giving exhibitions of your former skills. Once in a while it’s good to come out of retirement and knock your head against the wall, to go back to your craft. It’s good for the soul, but no good for the pocketbook."

It’s been said that Mr. Matthau’s "retirement" performances now command $1 million a shot. "What I actually get, after lawyers and taxes and agents, is about $20,000 to play with. Press agents like to throw around those big numbers because then they have something to identify with. They figure that if a person looking the way Walter Matthau looks can make a million per picture, anyone can. I’ve got to admit that the fringe benefits in this business are good, though. They send a limousine for you, they get your airplane tickets and they take care of the tips. I never know what to tip a porter."

Playing opposite Alexis Smith is another nice fringe benefit. "I always thought Alexis Smith was a very sexy-looking woman. I recently met her and she looked even sexier than before. Alexis is sexy because she has no pomposity. Pomposity springs from a lack of intelligence. Ask any doctor."

Pompous doctors are not an unknown breed."That’s what I mean. I’ve only known three doctors who were not pompous. Of course, if some guy operates on me after having read this, I want him to know that he’s one of the three."

Mr. Matthau has not yet selected a vehicle to follow "Casey’s Shadow." "Someone just sent over a script by special delivery. Surely it could have waited. Of course, the post office doesn’t say what special delivery means; they don’t say it’s faster, they just say it’s special. Anyway, I read the first few pages and now I can’t digest my French toast. I’m going to send it back by registered mail."