Walter Matthau- Never Cracking a Smile by Tony Piazza


     In 1973 actor WALTER MATTHAU was in San Francisco filming the police procedual drama “The Laughing Policeman.” The movie’s screenplay was by Thomas Rickman, and adapted loosely from a novel (of the same name) written by Sjowall and Wahloo. Walter Matthau starred as Sargent Jake Martin (Martin Beck in the novel) and BRUCE DERN as Inspector Leo Larsen, Jake’s police partner. Both are assigned to investigate  multiple murders on a public bus. One of the victims turns out to be an off-duty detective which raises the question whether his presence had anything to do with the bus massacre. In the book the setting was Stockholm, Sweden, but for the film the location was changed to San Francisco.

   Bruce Dern & Walter Matthau in Laughing Policeman.

   I was assigned as a stand-in for Bruce Dern on this picture, and had a “walk on” about mid-way through the film. It was an interesting shoot. At one point during production we spent time in the actual Homicide Bureau at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, with real detectives who were eager to share stories of some of the real dramas that took place on the city’s streets. Believe me, it would make the hairs on the nape of your neck rise to hear and see the photographic evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. It was an eye opener.

   My “walk on” stepping from an elevator at Hall of Justice.

   Bruce Dern and Walter Matthau complemented each other. They were both extremely easy going, and blessed with a subtle sense of humor. A conversation that I can remember with Matthau took place in a courtroom at City Hall. It started with me complementing him on his performance in “Kotch”- a film directed by his friend, Jack Lemmon. He seemed truly humbled by my words. We next discussed the “Odd Couple” and I told him that I had been in a stage production of it at my college. Seeing that I was interested in the profession he very generously offered his advice on acting; something that you could tell was dear to his heart.

   My mother visiting the set. Notice my dad’s helmet which Matthau snatched to wear for the shot!

   We had many locations around the city, and a fair portion of them night shots. The bus sequence took up the majority of the after dark work. Starting at the bus terminal, through the detailed massacre, culminating in a dawn sequence at Portsmouth Square near Chinatown (as we see the bus towed away from the crash site). These scenes accounted for a large portion of the night shooting, although there were also some night shots of Matthau returning home to his dysfunctional family. A residence that was in reality owned by the parents of a former school mate. The house was located up on a hill that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and served as a perfect location for what the production crew had invisioned from the script. Some neighbors were not as thrilled as others by the sudden invasion of a film crew, but Matthau assisted with public relations by entertaining the local kids- sitting on a curb at their level and answering questions and telling amusing tales.

  Ever the clown, Matthau exchanges a helmet for two briefcases.

    “The Laughing Policeman” wasn’t a big hit. Not that it was bad film, but I believe the moody, somber atmosphere didn’t play well with moviegoers at the time. I can say that neither Matthau, nor Dern in real life were that depressing or mournful. And although the title character Sgt. Jake Martin never cracked a smile in the film,  Matthau off camera presented plenty of laughs, and made for a pleasant working atmosphere that I remember fondly to this day.


    Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel; “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His second novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” has just been released. He was an actor/extra during the 1970’s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden.