By Alex Belth
A Siegel Film, Don Siegel’s account of his life as a film director is an entertaining and instructive guide to making movies. I especially like the section about Siegel’s experience working with Walter Matthau on Charley Varrick.
For a little background on Matthau, consider that the normally conscientious and respectful Mike Nichols once told an interviewer, “Walter Matthau was not a nice man. There it is.”
Certainly nobody ever called him an easy man. Like Pete Axthelm in sports writing, Matthau loved gambling—which helps explains why he was such a natural to play the sad ass Buttermaker in The Bad News Bears. Check out this fun little 1974 People magazine story by the criminally underappreciated Brad Darrach. And then there’s this from Tom Junod’s great GQ profile of Tony Curtis:
He went out to Hollywood after the Navy, after the war. Sure, he was still legally Bernie Schwartz, and he still had a mouthful of Bernie’s rotten teeth—but he already had Tony Curtis’s hairstyle, and he was already wearing his shirts just the way Tony Curtis would, with the open collar … and pretty soon he got his teeth capped, each and every one … and pretty soon Universal put him under contract … and pretty soon, when he went back to New York after his first movie, he told the limo driver to go by the theater where he had taken some acting courses. And there he saw Walter Matthau standing in the rain, and he rolled down the window and he shouted, “Hey, Walter! I fucked Yvonne De Carlo!”
Now, from Siegel’s book:
Walter Matthau is addicted to gambling and knows it all too well. he compounds his illness by actually not wanting to win. His excitement and enjoyment in gambling come from losing.
I lost a bet with Walter thai a picture he had completed some months before Charley Varrick would earn more money than our film. I bet him $1,200 that he was wrong. I wrote out a cheque and sent it off to him. While working on this book, I found the returned cheque, totally voided. This will make him idiotically happy.
And here’s more:
Joe Don Baker and Matthau met me in my trailer. We started talking about what they faced in the coming scene.
Me: Naturally, we’ll go over the lines and what I want you to do, Joe, so Walter won’t have to hang upside down any longer than absolutely necessary. And by the way, can you hang upside down without fainting?
Matthau: My dear Don, I’ve been hung from trees with a rope around my neck. I’ve hung from my heels, held by a Mafia gorilla, out of a window, until I agreed to pay my usual gambling debts. I was born upside down. I think and make love upside down.