Having won an Academy Award for his performance in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, by the late 1960s comedy actor Walter Matthau was riding high. He had just signed on to a big new picture—the hotly anticipated film adaptation of Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! —when unexpectedly, he came up against a problem. Or rather, he came up against Barbra Streisand.
By now a well-established star of stage and screen herself (and fresh from her Oscar-winning performance in Funny Girl), Streisand knew perfectly well what worked and what didn’t work in a musical—and, more importantly, was not afraid to let her director, Gene Kelly, know her views.
Arriving on set, Matthau quickly saw that it was Streisand, not Kelly, who was pulling all the shots—and he didn’t like it.
Reportedly, the pair clashed numerous times during filming, with Matthau famously dismissing Streisand as having “no more talent than a butterfly’s fart.” Eventually, Streisand’s forthrightness infuriated Matthau so much that he felt compelled to take his problems straight to Richard Zanuck, the head of the 20th Century Fox. Zanuck, however, was proudly on Streisand’s side. Knowing all too well how much of a powerhouse performer she was, Zanuck dismissed Matthau’s complaints, turning him away with the stinging words, “I’d love to help you, but this is ‘Hello, Dolly’, not ‘Hello, Walter.’”
Beset with problems and infighting on set, despite its strong cast, the film failed to capitalize on the success of its Broadway predecessor, received lukewarm reviews from the critics, and performed poorly at the box office. Its reputation among Streisand’s fans has since grown, however, and today it’s among the most popular of her numerous film appearances.
No doubt very much to Walter Matthau’s disappointment.