How Walter Matthau Asked Me to Marry Him

I’ve never really told too many people this story, so I thought I’d share it today. It goes a little something like this…a funny thing happened on the way to the dorm…

Walter in Hello Dolly!

In spring 1991, I was a senior at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (I’m sure I’m dating myself, but who cares. For the record, my internal age is perpetually seventeen anyway.) At the time, I was already engaged (with a sparkly rock on my finger to prove it), only a few weeks from graduation, and looking forward to moving to Houston with my fiancee at the end of May. I was walking back from class and starving. (When isn’t a college student starving?) Ahead of me, I noticed one of the campus thoroughfares, Margaret Morrison St., had been blocked off with trailers, canopies, and equipment. I didn’t think too much about why – things out of the ordinary were always happening on campus. I guess I thought someone was selling something or setting up for a rally or concert.

As I got closer, I noticed a table full of snacks – crackers, cheese, bagels, donuts, pitchers of water, that kind of thing. I remember thinking, “Oh cool, free food.” So, I strolled over and grabbed a plateful of snacks. In my haste to scarf free grub, I started choking madly on a dry cracker. Next thing I know, a deep voice I sort of recognized was at my side. “Looks like you could use a glass of water, young lady.” With cracker bits falling out of my now crimson face, I looked up to see who was speaking – it was none other than Walter Matthau dressed in an old dark brown suit and vest. He smiled, poured a cup of water and handed it to me. I awkwardly gulped it down because I was still half choking to death, embarrassed as hell, and struck speechless.

For those of you who might not know, Walter Matthau was an Academy Award winning

Walter in The Odd Couple

actor best known for his role as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple and his frequent movie collaborations with Odd Couple star Jack Lemmon, as well as his role as Coach Buttermaker in the 1976 comedy, The Bad News Bears. He also starred as Max Goldman in the 1993 comedy, Grumpy Old Men, and its 1995 sequel, Grumpier Old Men. As a young girl, I grew up watching his old movies and TV shows with my dad.

When I could finally speak again, I asked the obvious but daft question, “Ummm, what are you doing here?”

“We’re filming a movie,” Walter said. (I was mortified as I realized I must’ve stolen the snacks meant for the actors and crew.) “Would you care to walk me to the set?” He then offered me his bent elbow to hook my arm around and off we strolled towards the building CMU’ers affectionately refer to as Maggie Mo (for Margaret Morrison Hall which sits on Margaret Morrison St.)

At this point, the breeze created by a feather could’ve knocked me over. Here I was, meandering around with Walter Matthau on my arm as if it was the most natural, everyday occurrence in the world.

It gets better.

Harry Morgan in M*A*S*H

As we walked along making small talk (he asked me my name, what I was majoring in, when I was graduating, all the usual stuff), we passed one of the trailers. And who should walk out, but Harry Morgan, another TV and film star, probably best known for his role as Colonel Potter in the long-running TV series, M*A*S*H – another popular TV series that, unless you had been raised by wolves in the deep woods of Montana, had become a household name.

Now, truth be told, I had watched nearly every episode of M*A*S*H mostly as reruns (I was young when the show first began). M*A*S*H was the pop culture hit of its time and one of my faves. So I’m sure you can imagine my surprise as Harry Morgan said to Walter, “Who’s this beautiful redhead?” At this point, I’m sure I blushed red as a tomato to match my hair color.

“Her name’s Marlo, like Marlo Thomas,” Walter said with a charming smile. “I saved her life and now she’s walking me to the set.”

“Well, we can’t have you stealing all the pretty girls, so she’s taking me too,” Harry replied with a winning smile of his own and he took my other arm.

“I’m not stealing her,” Walter said mischievously, almost as if he had to one-up Harry on the charm meter. He turned to me and said the most shocking thing imaginable. “Will you marry me?”

Now, I’m sure he meant it in jest since he was married at the time, but it still left me speechless.

Then Harry chimed in with, “She doesn’t want to marry you, you old fool…she wants to marry me.”

At this point, all I could think to do was wiggle my engagement ring hand in front of them and say politely, “Sorry, I can’t marry anyone, I’m already engaged.”

“Oh, too bad,” Harry said, shaking his head. “The best ones are always taken.”

“Isn’t that always the way?” Walter added while patting my arm.

Turns out, Walter and Harry were filming the first of three made for TV movies called The Incident. Walter Matthau was playing the role of lawyer Harmon Cobb alongside Harry Morgan as Judge Stoddard Bell. They would later go on to film two sequels as these characters, namely Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore and Incident in a Small Town.

A moment later we got to the set and I saw that Maggie Mo had been transformed into an old courthouse, complete with a streetlamp and a sign to cover over the building’s real name. Multiple cameras dotted the sidewalk and actors dressed in old-fashioned suits milled about waiting to begin filming. Walter asked me if I wanted to be an extra for the day, but unfortunately I was already going to be late for work. When I said I couldn’t, he thanked me for “taking good care of him”, said it was a pleasure meeting me and shook my hand as he wished me luck in the future. Harry did the same and I stood off to the side for a few minutes watching them get ready to shoot the scene.

All in all, Walter and Harry were both charming and funny and it was like being between two sweet, old grandfathers. I walked the rest of the way to my dorm utterly stunned that I had met Walter Matthau and Harry Morgan. When my roommate asked me why I was late, I told her “because Walter Matthau asked me to marry him.” Of course, she didn’t believe me.

Anyone else have an interesting story about meeting someone famous? If so, please share it with us in the comments below!