Updated on October 20, 2017 at 8:15 PM
Posted on October 20, 2017 at 7:59 PM
Leave It to Beaver
Gallery: Leave It to Beaver
By Mark Voger
It’s been 60 years since we first met the Cleavers, a TV family as real to generations of fans as their own relations.
In the fall of 1957, the sitcom classic “Leave It to Beaver” introduced the Cleaver clan: sage papa Ward (Hugh Beaumont), doting mama June (Barbara Billingsley), straight-arrow elder son Wally (Tony Dow) and his little brother, trouble magnet Theodore, aka “the Beaver” (Jerry Mathers).
“The show has never been off the air, so it’s one of longest running scripted shows to air continuously on television, if not the longest running,” said Dow in a recent interview. “We hope to have some fun with that.”
The fun Dow speaks of is his first-ever autograph show in New Jersey. Dow will appear Friday through Oct. 29 at the Chiller Theatre expo in Parsippany. The actor will be joined by his onetime TV brother, Mathers.
Since “Beaver” went off the air in 1963, Dow continued to act (reprising Wally in a 1980s reunion) and branched out into producing and directing. Dow went public about his struggles with depression, and once had a sculpture exhibited at the Louvre in Paris.
The Los Angeles native, 72, spoke during a call from his California home.
Tony Dow, then and now.
Q. When you and Jerry make appearances, is it like two brothers catching up?
A. It’s interesting, because our relationship was a lot like brothers. I was a big brother; he tagged along a lot, wanting to hang out with the bigger guys. Just like on the show.
Q. What did you do for fun while growing up in Los Angeles?
A. California was a cool place to grow up. I was a beach guy. I played a lot of volleyball; I played in four national championships. I loved playing volleyball on the beach and indoor, six-man.
I was a swimmer and a diver, so when I started, it was in groups of ages 7 and 8; and 9 and 10; and 11 and 12. I held some national records in those age groups. So I spent a lot of time in the pool. The only thing that stopped me from being in the pool all the time was getting the “Leave It to Beaver” show.
Q. Did you watch a lot of TV as a kid?
A. Well, those were the good old days, when you would take your TV tray at 6 or 7 (p.m.), and the whole family would watch “Ed Sullivan.” I liked Westerns a lot. You only had three (network) choices back then. Local TV hadn’t really grown up yet. I’d watch two or three hours a night. But then, when I was on the show, I had a lot of other stuff to do. I had my homework; I had to learn lines; and I still wanted to pal around with my friends.
Q. You were almost a reluctant actor.
A. What happened was, I wasn’t really interested in acting. But a friend of mine who was an actor asked me if I’d go along on an audition for (the pilot) “Johnny Wildlife.” So I went and I ended up lucking out. I don’t know how or why. Things mushroomed from there, and I ended up in “Leave It to Beaver.”
Q. Do you think you were cast in part because of your athleticism? Wally was a star athlete at Mayfield High.
A. Those guys, (co-producers) Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, were really smart. They were terrific writers. They played to our strengths. Especially me, because I was a novice. Jerry had been acting since he was 2 years old or something ridiculous like that. They tried to write to who we were. I guess if they had cast a bookworm as Wally, he’d be on the debating team instead of the basketball team. So the writing was not to help the role, but more to play to our strengths.
Q. That’s interesting, because I’ve always thought the crux of the show was how Wally was a good athlete who got good grades, while Beaver was a screw-up who always got in trouble. But there was no judgment on Wally’s part. Wally always wanted to help Theodore.
A. Originally, the show was going to be called “Wally and the Beaver.” The original idea was to show the craziness of the adult world from the child’s point of view — Beaver being a little kid and Wally being a little bit more grown up. I’m not sure how structured it was when they wrote the pilot. They had another Wally (Paul Sullivan). If he’d have stayed in the show, it would have been a different show. He was not an athletic Wally. So in that case, maybe it wouldn’t have been that Wally was a good athlete and student, and Beaver was a screw-up. But mainly, they were trying to look at the world from the child’s view, two different ages.
Q. Those scenes of you and Jerry talking about the day’s events in the bedroom were so naturalistic. Could you feel yourself growing as an actor?
A. Absolutely, I think I grew. The first season, they a had dialogue coach who would help me an awful lot. I learned the lines, and she would work with me. Then, the people I was interested in as an audience member kind of influenced me. I loved Marlon Brando and James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Those kind of guys always interested me in the way they would underplay in their acting. It was the style of the day. But on TV at the time, things were played broader. Kids were less realistic. That’s one thing we lucked out in. We were fairly realistic. Those scenes in the bedroom, those were moments that everybody had in real life. All the shows were written from real life. Especially the first 100.
Q. Whose real life?
A. They (Connelly and Mosher) had seven kids (between them). Usually, Ricky (one of Connelly’s children) would come home from school and tell his dad about something that happened in school that day. Then Joe would say, “That sounds like a good story.” (The “Beaver” character) Larry Mondello picking up the drill and talking Beaver into drilling a little hole in a piece of wood that they held up against the garage wall — those were the kind of things kids did. I think that’s why the show has endured for so long. A lot of it is relatable. People relate to (the characters) Eddie Haskell and Larry Mondello. They’re great characters. They’re well defined.
Q. How did it feel to have a sculpture exhibited at the Louvre (in 2008)?
A. It was amazing. That show is an annual show, a jury show. I had no idea the gallery I’m in in Beverly Hills (Karen Lynne Galleries) sent in a photo of my work. One piece was accepted. People there didn’t know who I was, so there was no preferential treatment, which happens sometimes. It was a real honor. It’s a big-time show (Societe National des Beaux-Arts). It’s been going on for over 100 years. Only two sculptors were represented. So that was very cool.
Q. What is your process as a sculptor?
A. I pretty much do my work from wood — like, roots and things like that. Actually, in the section between the tree itself and roots, there’s a ball of hard wood, like a root ball. That’s where I start. I work on it, dealing with shapes, until at some point, it changes into something without my realizing what I’m doing. Then I spend time getting rid of stuff that I don’t like, bringing out things I do like. It’s figurative, not realistic. It’s abstract. I take my original piece to a foundry. They make a mold; then they make waxes. Then I go to the foundry and modify the waxes, and they pour the bronze. Then I work on the patina.
Q. You’ve spoken out about your struggles with clinical depression. Have people said that having a familiar face associated with the problem is a comfort?
A. Yeah. It’s gratifying. I was involved with the (National) Institute of Mental Health and the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association. I did a couple of short documentaries, really just short films, talking about clinical depression. I think doctors used them, and they were distributed by those associations at that point. I got quite a bit of feedback. People said it helped them. They were grateful that I would stand up and be counted.
I always felt that there’s nothing negative about depression except how it affects the person. There are solutions, especially in the medication area and also therapy. It’s important that people realize that there’s light at end of the tunnel, and they should take advantage of that help. Otherwise, it’s miserable.
Q. What I always say about your portrayal of Wally Cleaver in “Leave It to Beaver” is: I wish I had been as good a big brother as Wally was to Theodore.
A. Thanks. A lot of people say they wish their family had been as close as the Cleavers. That’s why people love to watch the show. It makes them feel good.
CHILLER THEATRE TOY, MODEL & FILM EXPO
Who: More than 130 guests, including Michael Nesmith, Verne Troyer, Barry Williams, Louise Lasser, Jerry Mathers, Tony Dow, Danny Bonaduce and Dyan Cannon
When: Friday, 6 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Hilton Parsippany, 1 Hilton Court, Parsippany
How much: $30 per day at the door. Children younger than 12 free with ticketed adult. Visit chillertheatre.com.