Origins: In the world of entertainment, the performer who bills himself under his real name sometimes seems like the exception rather than the rule. The need for catchy sobriquets easily remembered by the ticket-buying public has spurred many entertainers (or their agents, or their managers, or their studios) to fashion new appellations in place of birth names deemed too plain, too long, too ethnic, too difficult to spell or pronounce, too patrician, or simply not sufficiently reflective of the performer's stage personality.
Through this process vaudeville entertainers Benny Kubelsky and Nathan Birnbaum shed the surnames of their immigrant parents and achieved national fame as radio comics Jack Benny and George Burns, stuffily-named Archibald Alexander Leach was transformed into suave film star Cary Grant, actor Roy Scherer's masculine physique was emphasized through his Hollywood rebirth as Rock Hudson, a Hungarian Jew from the streets of
A son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, born in 1920 in New York City's Lower East Side, began his stage career at
That unquestioning acceptance was exactly what Walter Matthau was counting on, for the tale of his unusually lengthy surname was one of several practical jokes he impishly perpetrated over the years. As Matthau biographers Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg disclosed in their 2002 biography of the film star, his father's surname was actually the unremarkable Matthow; the only alteration made later was a slight change of spelling that altered neither the pronunciation nor the length of the name. The story of Walter's multi-syllabic original name, along with some other whoppers (e.g., his mother was a gypsy; his middle name was 'Foghorn') were simply fictions he invented to liven up some of the tedious, repetitive interviews he had to endure as one of the obligations of stardom.
Matthau did make his fictitious surname "official" in at least one sense, however
Last updated: 19 October 2005
Edelman, Rob and Audrey Kupferberg. Matthau: A Life. Taylor Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-878-33274-X.