When you think of the great movie pairings, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy or Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton come to mind. Odds are that your first thought isn’t two middle-aged male actors. Yet, watching Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau share the screen together, it feels like the perfect combination.
You have a funny leading man in Lemmon. Handling comedy and drama, he’d earned attention and a supporting actor Academy Award for 1955’s “Mister Roberts.” He’d appeared in both supporting and leading roles in some of the greatest movies of the late 1950s and 60s, including “Some Like it Hot” (1959), “The Apartment” (1960), and “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962).
Then you have a long-time supporting actor in Matthau. With his looks (let’s just call him less-than-classically-attractive), he got cast in small parts or as villains in films like Elvis Presley’s “King Creole” (1958) and Audrey Hepburn’s “Charade” (1963). It wasn’t until he returned to Broadway in 1965 to co-star with Art Carney in Neil Simon’s play, “The Odd Couple,” that Matthau would find new opportunities in film comedies.
It was writer and director Billy Wilder that first paired Lemmon and Matthau in 1966’s black comedy, “The Fortune Cookie.” Lemmon plays a TV cameraman accidentally hurt by a football player during a game. Matthau plays his greedy brother-in-law, a lawyer who lives up to all the complaints about conniving shysters. Matthau’s performance proved so entertaining that he earned an Academy Award for his supporting role. Even better, he also started a friendship with Lemmon that would last to his death in 2000.
Two years later, when Neil Simon’s play “The Odd Couple” was finally ready for a movie version, Matthau reprised his role as Oscar Madison. Instead of Art Carney as Felix Ungar, Paramount Pictures re-paired Matthau with Lemmon. The two created the perfect comedy couple: slovenly Oscar and neatnik Felix. What makes for bad roommates made for a fantastic comedy, and the film became a box-office success and cultural phenomenon.
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Of all of their films, “The Odd Couple” remains their most successful. It hits No. 17 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Laughs” list. “The Odd Couple” brought us two great actors in one of the great Simon comedies.
The two were partnered again with the 1974 remake of “The Front Page.” Billy Wilder also returned to direct the two. Each continued to star separately in great films, but they reunited in 1981 for another comedy, “Buddy Buddy.” The 1990s giving them plenty of pairings: “Grumpy Old Men” (1993), the television movie “The Grass Harp” (1995), “Grumpier Old Men” (1995), “Out to Sea” (1997), and even a sequel to “The Odd Couple” with 1998’s “The Odd Couple II.”
Lemmon and Matthau also worked in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991), but they shared no scenes together. In 1971, Lemmon directed Matthau in “Kotch” (Lemmon had a cameo appearance), helping his friend Matthau to a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
From their first film, “The Fortune Cookie,” to their last, “The Odd Couple II,” Lemmon and Matthau entertained audiences. Along the way, they enjoyed something better than a Hollywood romance. They built an enduring friendship.