When THE FORTUNE COOKIE came out in 1965 it proved a remarkablysuccessful comedy. Of course it was directed by Billy Wilder, still ator near the height of his film career with a string of great successesfrom THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, THE LOST WEEKEND, and SUNSET BOULDVARDthrough SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT. Of course there had beenless successful films for Wilder, most notably THE EMPEROR WALTZ andTHE BIG CARNIVAL, but most of his films were widely respected bycritics and the public. And when he made it in 1965 it was to star JackLemmon, who had demonstrated his comic qualities in three other Wilderfilms: SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, and IRMA LA DOUCE. So thepublic was quite interested in this film, which was to tear into theAmerican habit of suing for injuries, and into shyster lawyers. Infact, the screenplay was originally supposed to be MEET WHIPLASH WILLY,the final name of the film when shown in England.<br><br>What surprised many people was the casting of Walter Matthau as"Whiplash Willie" Gingrich, the shyster brother-in-law to Lemmon'sHarry Hinkle. Matthau was a widely respected actor, with great stageexperience, but his performances in movies had been mostly as villains.From the whip happy tavern keeper in THE KENTUCKIAN, to theMachiavellian government adviser in FAIL SAFE Matthau usually playedunlikeable sorts. There were some exceptions. In A FACE IN THE CROWD heis one of the television people who assist Lonesome Rhodes (AndyGriffith) on his way up, but who are appalled at the monster theycreate. When, at the end of the film, Griffith is starting to think ofhow to overcome the huge gaffe he created over the airwaves that havesent his career into the dumpster, it is Matthau (a terrific figure ofdecency here) who tells Griffith that he won't be coming back, but willbe lucky to be remembered in a few years as a has-been. But A FACE INTHE CROWD was a rarity for Matthau. If he played comedy it was as avillain, most chillingly in CHARADES as Mr. Bartholemew. In his scenesas an embassy official he had some good comic bits, like when he offersa cigarette to Audrey Hepburn, and she takes two puffs and puts it out- Matthau is put out by this waste of one of his pricey cigarettes!<br><br>It is Matthau's appearance in THE FORTUNE COOKIE that changed hispublic persona and his career. He went to town as Whiplash Willy,threatening to sue the United Fruit Company for failing to put aprinted warning on their bananas after Howard McNear fell and broke hispelvis tripping on one. His careful manipulation of brother-in-lawLemmon/Hinkle, his calculating in how to force a major law firm tosurrender unconditionally in his demands, his snide comments aboutgreat lawyers of the past (Lincoln, Darrow), all build up a to a greatintroductory performance. It really showed the Matthau that the publicwould grow to know - a cynical type who could make others (especiallythe more decent Lemmon) do what he wanted them to. He would also bequick to get into deeply pseudo-intellectual speeches, voicing hisopinions and points of views. It was the Matthau who would entertainmovie audiences for the next three decades. As a sign of his success infinding his persona, Matthau won the Best Supporting Oscar for THEFORTUNE COOKIE.<br><br>Lemmon recommended Matthau to Wilder, who was pushing either FrankSinatra or Jackie Gleason. It is quite hard to imagine either theChairman of the Board or the Great One as effective as Matthau. But Ihave long wondered if Wilder and Lemmon had had someone else in mind,someone who was no longer available. The Hinkle - Gingrich relationshipwas a close one due to their family relationship, and Wilder certainlyhad discussed the issue of the casting with Lemmon. Up to 1961, Lemmonhad appeared, most often, with one actor in the movies - in comedies.He appeared in BELL, BOOK, and CANDLE, IT STARTED WITH JANE, andOPERATION MAD BALL with his close friend Ernie Kovacs. Lemmon had beenso close to Kovacs that he appeared (in the disguise of a monkey suit)as one of the Nairobi Trio. There are some lines in THE FORTUNE COOKIEthat sound ready made for Kovacs - for example, when he writes a figuredown as a settlement figure, and when the other lawyers make theircounter-offers Matthau repeats it each time, looks at the paper, andsays, very quietly, "That isn't it!" One can easily see Kovacs sayingthe same thing the same way.<br><br>If, as I suspect, THE FORTUNE COOKIE was an idea of Wilder's andDiamond's for a few years, it is just possible that Lemmon suggestedKovacs for the role of Gingrich. But after Kovacs died in a caraccident in 1962, Lemmon had to find another actor of similar type. Andthen he noticed Matthau, who in 1965 was well received for hisperformance in THE ODD COUPLE on Broadway. Kovacs' bad luck may verywell have been Matthau's good luck.<br><br>Today we think of the Lemmon-Matthau partnership as really based ontheir films with Wilder. They did four films with Wilder, but after THEFORTUNE COOKIE it was their joint appearance in the film version of THEODD COUPLE directed by Gene Saks that made the partnership viable.Otherwise it might have seemed a flash in the pan. THE ODD COUPLE wasto prove that the chemistry between the actors did not solely defend onthe artistry of Wilder.