Gee, Wally: ‘Beaver’ marks 60 years since premiere
Ask anyone for their definition of idyllic American life in the 1950s and you’ll undoubtedly get one response time and time again – “Leave It to Beaver.” Six decades later, the Cleavers still reflect a carefree time in America where children were expected to dress for dinner and mind their manners.
Several years ago, Jerry Mathers came to our local hospital to raise awareness for diabetes. Since we’re both classic TV aficionados, we had to swing by to see “The Beave” in person. We were fortunate to talk to him at length, and he was more than happy to answer questions about “Leave it to Beaver.” Mathers told us the state in which the Cleavers reside is never mentioned because the show-runners wanted Mayfield to seem like Anytown, U.S.A.
Mathers is forever remembered as the inquisitive, naive Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver on the sitcom, giving viewers a weekly glimpse of a typical family. The Cleavers were the very definition of suburbia during the few years after the Korean War and before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“Leave It to Beaver” premiered Oct. 4, 1957, running for 234 episodes until 1963. Despite its place in television history, CBS canceled the show after the first season, but thankfully ABC saved the day for the remainder of its run.
The show centered on Beaver and his All-American older brother Wally (Tony Dow) – a high school letterman well liked by his peers and teachers. Their parents – Ward (Hugh Beaumont) was working to provide his family with middle-class luxuries and consistently demonstrated that father really did know best and stay-at-home mom June (Barbara Billingsley) vacuumed in pearls and high heels and was involved in every aspect of her families’ lives.
Many of the plots also included Beaver and Wally’s friends and schoolmates including one of TV’s biggest brats – the slick-talking Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond), Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford (Frank Bank), a slightly dimwitted bully and Larry Mondello (Rusty Stevens), Beaver’s best friend who constantly encouraged his poor decisions. In some episodes many of Beaver’s other classmates – Judy (Jeri Weil), Whitey (Stanley Fafara) and Gilbert (Stephen Talbot) – and his teacher, Ms. Landers (Sue Randall) were also prominently featured.
Mainly told from Beaver and Wally’s perspective, the show’s success is largely due its talented child stars. Mathers and Dow were compelling to watch and had impeccable timing and delivery. They were believable and sincere, never getting in too much trouble, but having to navigate the ups and downs of adolescence. Although the series also didn’t back away from tougher topics including alcoholism with hired handyman Andy (Wendell Holmes) and divorce when Beaver’s camp friend, Chopper (Barry Gordon), stays for a weekend.
Mathers, not wanting to miss his den meeting, actually attended his audition wearing his Cub Scout uniform. This sweet realism won him the role of Beaver, who always managed to get himself into odd predicaments, like the time when he was stranded in a giant cup of coffee on a billboard. Ward and June were always there to guide their sons’ paths and equip them with what they needed to make the right decisions.
“Leave It To Beaver” set the precedent for modern shows, ending its run with a dedicated series finale, “Family Scrapbook.” In six decades, the show has never been off the air (airing in 45 different languages). New generations are introduced to the Cleavers’ wholesome household every year.
And golly, that’s just fine with us.