PLAYING THE HORSES WITH
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
see an actor at the ballet, and right away hes 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 "Caseys Shadow" as a trainer entrusted
with the task of turning Alexis Smiths horse into a million-dollar
winner. Although Carol Sobieskis 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 wouldnt 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 dont know. Whatever youve got.
"Ive heard about all the research Al Pacino and Robert
De Niro do for their roles, and I think theyre both excellent
actors. I have a hunch, though, that most of these guys are just
trying to convince the critics that theyre serious, hard-working
actors. But I dont have to throw myself into a role that way,
because Ive lived everything-Ive been a waiter,
a gambler, a pimp, a murderer. Im from the ghetto, and the
only time I do any research is when I play aristocracy."
Mr. Matthaus most recent comedies, "The Sunshine Boys"
and "The Bad News Bears," attempted to make serious comments
about the contemporary American scene. Will "Caseys 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 youve got a lack
What is the moral of this racetrack serio-comedy?
"The moral of the story is Dont 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 its good to come out of retirement and knock your head
against the wall, to go back to your craft. Its good for the
soul, but no good for the pocketbook."
Its been said that Mr. Matthaus "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. Ive 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."Thats what
I mean. Ive 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 hes one of the three."
Mr. Matthau has not yet selected a vehicle to follow "Caseys
Shadow." "Someone just sent over a script by special delivery.
Surely it could have waited. Of course, the post office doesnt
say what special delivery means; they dont say its faster,
they just say its special. Anyway, I read the first few pages
and now I cant digest my French toast. Im going to send
it back by registered mail."