Specializing in playing shambling, cantankerous cynics, Walter Matthau, with his jowly features, slightly stooped posture, and seedy, rumpled demeanor, looked as if he would be more at home as a laborer or small-time insurance salesman than as a popular movie star equally adept at drama and comedy. An actor who virtually put a trademark on cantankerous behavior, Matthau was a staple of the American cinema for almost four decades.
The son of poor Jewish-Russian immigrants, Matthau was born on October 1, 1920, in New York City and raised in a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side. His introduction to acting came during his occasional employment at the Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, where he sold soda pops during intermission for 50 cents per show. Following WWII service as an Air Force radioman and gunner, Matthau studied acting at the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop. Experience with summer stock led to his first Broadway appearances in the 1940s, and at the age of 28 he got his first break serving as the understudy to Rex Harrison's character in the Broadway drama Anne of a Thousand Days.