Walter Matthau was born on October 1, 1920 in New York, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants Rose Berolsky, a sweatshop worker and Milton Matthau, an electrician.
During World War II, Matthau served in the U.S. Army Air Forces with the Eighth Air Force in England as a B-24 liberator radioman-gunner in the same 453rd Bombardment Group as James Stewart. Walter achieved the rank of staff sergeant.
After the war, Matthau became interested in acting. He took classes in the acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York under German director Erwin Piscator.
Walter Matthau began his acting career on the broadway stage in 1948 in Anne of the Thousand Days. He would also star on Broadway in The Liar (1950), Twilight Walk (1951), Fancy Meeting You Again (1952), One Bright Day (1952), In Any Language (1952), The Grey-Eyed People (1952), The Ladies of the Corridor (1953), The Burning Glass (1953), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (1955), Guys and Dolls (1955), Once More, with Feeling (1958), Once There Was a Russian (1961), A Shot in the Dark (1961), My Mother, My Father and Me (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965).
He won the 1962 Tony Award for Best Actor in a play for A Shot in the Dark and in 1965 the Tony for Best Actor for The Odd Couple. He also received a Tony nomination in 1959 for Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic) for "Once More, with Feeling."
In 1955, Walter Matthau made his film debut as a whip-wielding bad guy in The Kentuckian opposite Burt Lancaster.
In 1966, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau would make there first movie together, The Fortune Cookie and they became life long friends. They would go on to star in nine more movies together: The Odd Couple (1968), The Front Page (1974), Buddy, Buddy (1981), JFK (1991), Grumpy Old Men (1993), Grumpier Old Men (1995), The Grass Harp (1995), Out to Sea (1997), and The Odd Couple II (1998).
Walter Matthau also appeared in movies such as A Face in the Crowd (1957), King Creole (1958), Charade (1963), Fail Safe (1964), A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Hello Dolly (1969), Cactus Flower (1969), Plaza Suite (1971), Kotch (1971), Charley Varrick (1973), The Sunshine Boys (1975), The Bad News Bears (1976), California Suite (1978), Little Miss Marker (1980), and Hopscotch (1980).
He would receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor for Kotch (1971) and The Sunshine Boys (1975). He did with the Golden Globe for The Sunshine Boys.
Walter Matthau won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Fortune Cookie (1966). He was visibly banged up, having been involved in a bicycle accident shortly before the awards show. He scolded nominated actors who were perfectly healthy and had not bothered to come to the ceremony, especially three of the other four major award winners: Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis and Paul Scofield.
Walter also commonly appeared on television in such programs as The DuPont Show of the Week, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, The Evelenth Hour, Naked City, General Electric Theater, Route 66, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was nominated for an Emmy for The Dupont Show of the Week.
Walter Matthau was married twice. First to Grace Geraldine Johnson (1948-1958, divorced) and they had two children, Jenny and David. His second wife was Carol Marcus (1959 to his death) and they had a son Charlie.