Matthau, Madison, and Buttermaker

In the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a former minor league ballplayer with the unenviable task of managing a team consisting of loudmouth Little Leaguers.  Matthau’s rumpled persona matches the Buttermaker character like lox matches cream cheese.  Perfectly.

Buttermaker’s Bears squad, though initially pitiful, nearly beat the Yankees in the North Valley League of southern California, thanks to star pitcher Amanda—a daughter of an ex-girlfriend of Buttermaker—and Kelly Leak, a star athlete who looks and acts like he’s auditioning to be the next James Dean.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie comes by most of its comedy fairly easily.  Matthau is, of course, an engaging performer, and the role’s a good one for him as he sits in the dugout, hung over and bleary-eyed, watching his Bears come out of the first inning 26 runs behind.  The kids are good, too; [director Michael] Ritchie sees them in a fairly tough and unsentimental way, and lets them use the sort of dialog we’d like to think 12-year-olds aren’t familiar with.”

Contrary to the myth of A-list stars isolating themselves while not filming, Matthau engaged with the kids’ families on set.  In a 2005 Tampa Bay Times article, Keith Niebuhr quoted Gary Lee Cavagnaro, who played the Bears catcher.  “As far as the adults, Walter Matthau (coach Morris Buttermaker) was in a class by himself.  As great as he was around the kids, he was even better around the moms.  Behind the field, the tree-lined area between the field and the concession stand, the mothers would camp out there.  And during off time, Walter would come out with Jack Lemmon occasionally and do an old vaudeville routine, which would keep the mothers in stitches.

In The Odd Couple, Matthau translates his portrayal of New York City sports writer Oscar Madison from the stage to the screen.  Matched with Art Carney in the play, written by Neil Simon, Matthau received plaudits in Walter Kerr’s New York Times review.  “He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent,” wrote Kerr.  Additionally, the noted critic praises, “But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher’s mitt.”

Carney portrays television news writer Felix Ungar, Oscar’s friend, who suffers from a martial rift, which sends him into an emotional tailspin.  Finding refuge at Oscar’s apartment, Felix exemplifies domestication that Martha Stewart would envy.  When Felix’s dedication to cleanliness borders on obsessive, frustration overwhelms Oscar.  In a monologue bathed in a combination of pathos and hilarity, Oscar confesses, “I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up.  Everything you do irritates me.  And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me.  You leave me little notes on my pillow.  Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.  ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes.  F. U.  Took me three hours to figure out F. U. was Felix Ungar!”

In the movie, Matthau plays against Lemmon, his co-star in several films, including Grumpy Old MenThe Fortune Cookie, and The Odd Couple II.  All’s well that ends well—at the end of The Odd Couple, Felix exorcises his marital ghosts and spends time with the attractive Pigeon sisters while Oscar, in an example of Felix’s habits rubbing off, admonishes his poker buddies to keep the poker table clean.

Matthau passed away in 2008.  Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times revealed the reality behind the actor.  Citing Lemmon, Downey wrote, “Fact is, says the actor whose finicky Felix Unger played opposite Oscar, they were an odder couple than some realized, for the Matthau he knew was a fragile figure, susceptible to ailments of all kinds, with a pinch of hypochondria thrown in, who would cringe and bruise if a stranger made the mistake of slapping him on the back.

“Lemmon says: ‘He was Felix.'”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 28, 2015.

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