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Everybody Knows Me: An Interview with Walter Matthau

October 1, 2014 | by

Matthau would be ninety-four today. The poet Aram Saroyan, his stepson, spoke to him in 1974 about the vagaries of fame.

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Matthau, left, with Maureen Stapleton and Jack Lemmon in a 1974 production of Juno and the Paycock at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum. Photo courtesy of the author

This interview took place at the kitchen table in the Matthau household in Pacific Palisades between two and three thirty in the morning on Monday, December 17, 1974. I was staying overnight in the guesthouse and had returned a short time earlier from a concert in Century City when I happened to catch Walter up and in a talking mood.

I’d known him since I was fourteen and he was thirty-seven, a well-established Broadway actor with a string of rave reviews in a succession of commercial flops. After his marriage to my mother, Carol, in 1959, I knew that he made occasional trips to Hollywood for movie or TV work, but understood that he was a “New York actor” and made the trips for money. After the Broadway smash he had in The Odd Couple in 1965, he began the move West and the transition from stage to screen, which, culminating in the screen version of The Odd Couple, established him as a movie star. During the transition, he had very nearly died of a coronary, an experience he was never noticeably reticent about.

Older than most stars—in his fifties by the time the dust settled again—Walter seemed to take fame in stride. But seeing him for the first time ensconced in his Pacific Palisades home with the high-powered trappings of Hollywood success, after having known him in what was by comparison a New York artistic bohemia, I couldn’t help being struck by the magnitude of the change. One felt that he relished being a movie star and at the same time regarded it with a certain skepticism, which extended to the business and his colleagues in it at large. When a movie he’d starred in received bad reviews, he sighed and said to Carol, We’re going have to start being nice to people again.

You’re back on the stage again in Juno and the Paycock. What’s that like, after ten years in the movies?

It’s very satisfying. Doing a good play on the stage is like eating a good meal at home—assuming your wife is a great cook, or that she’s hired a great cook. Doing a movie is like eating five hundred canapés at a cocktail party—you’re never really full. You don’t feel as though you’ve eaten a meal, and yet you can’t eat anymore. You’ve had a little hot dog here, and you’ve had a little caviar there, and a fish here, and a sardine. The feeling is just marvelous, especially if you’re good at what you’re doing, and I think I work much better on the stage because I have things to offer a stage that don’t show up in movies. Read More »

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The Golden West: An Interview with Daniel Fuchs

July 16, 2014 | by

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Doris Day and James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me, for which Daniel Fuchs wrote the screenplay.

In early 1989, I telephoned Daniel Fuchs (1909–93), then in his eightieth year, in Los Angeles to ask about the possibility of interviewing him for The Paris Review. The novelist and screenwriter—heralded for his Williamsburg Trilogy of the 1930s (Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company) and Love Me or Leave Me, for which he won an Academy Award—was cordial and open, but stipulated that he preferred to have the questions sent to him; he would mail back his answers. I sent the questions, twenty-seven of them, to Fuchs that February, and at first there appeared to be clear sailing—the writer said he would soon have something.

At the same time, Fuchs expressed a concern about the handling of the copyright when the interview was printed, and over the next several weeks it became increasingly difficult to allay or understand his fears. Although I’d assured him the rights would revert immediately to him upon publication, he remained concerned, asking for a signed warranty from George Plimpton. When this wasn’t quickly sent—owing to office delays rather than any disinclination—the writer grew vehement, and then abusive. Reluctantly I let go of the idea of seeing through an interview with Fuchs, whose work remains too much of a secret to this day.

A year or so after Fuch’s death in 1995, having been informed that the writer’s papers were in Special Collections at the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University, I phoned Dr. Howard Gotlieb, the Special Collections librarian, to ask if, by any chance, there was an interview circa 1989 among the papers. Indeed there was. Fuchs had constructed an interview that, while based on my questions, departs from them in unexpected and telling ways. It amounts to a late work by the distinguished, if unexpectedly irascible, “magician,” as John Updike once pronounced him.

You have been identified by Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and others as one of three Jewish novelists of the 1930s whose work has survived a half century now, the other two being Henry Roth and Nathanael West. Would you comment on the literary climate of the thirties?

Survived, rediscovered—a peculiar occurrence. A man sits in a room writing novels. Nothing happens. The books don’t sell—four hundred apiece, the last one a few more. There are scattered reviews. Then thirty years later, suddenly, the books are brought out, again and again, acclaimed. A small-sized mystery. Of course, I’m talking only of my own books. Call It Sleep and Nathanael West’s work attracted attention from the start and were well known all along.

Did you read Call It Sleep when it came out?

With pleasure and pangs of jealousy.

Nathaniel West went to Hollywood and wrote B movies and worked on his last novel, The Day of the Locust, which in its final sentence seems to indicate that the protagonist has succumbed to the furies around him in Hollywood and gone mad. Henry Roth moved to rural Maine and hasn’t, as of now, published another novel. You gave up a literary career for several decades to write movies. Is there a common thread in all this?

No, I don’t think so. West kept working on his own material up to the end, while he was doing the pictures at Republic. Roth had his own reasons. I liked it in Hollywood and stayed on. I found the life most agreeable. Mordecai Richler went out of his way, in a book review, to say I bragged about the money I made in Hollywood. Actually, I never made a great deal of money in the movies. Sixty thousand dollars a year was about the best I could do, if Richler doesn’t mind my saying so. In fact, I went nearly broke, had to sell my house, and then an amazing thing happened, another one of those mysteries. A benefactor, a character out of a Molnár play—I can’t say his name, he once asked me never to bother him or intrude—stepped forward. He’s been watching out for us over the past number of years and we’re quite comfortable. I guess I mention all this to get a rise out of Richler. Hollywood strikes a nerve in some people. Read More »

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