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Jerry Mathers Remembers ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ His Co-Stars and More (EXCLUSIVE)

There are certain television series that come to mind when you talk about classic TV, and there’s no doubt that Leave It to Beaver, starring Jerry Mathers as Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver, is one of them.

The show was a gentle comedy, with warm family dynamics and little moral lessons sprinkled throughout. Looking back, it sounds like something that simply couldn’t last, but Leave It to Beaver did, running for five seasons between 1957 and 1963 with a total of 234 episodes. And its cast was embraced by the television audience — and not only Jerry Mathers, but Hugh Beaumont as patriarch Ward Cleaver, Barbara Billingsley as mom June and Tony Dow as older brother Wally.

At the center of it all, though, was Mathers. He was born June 2, 1948 in Sioux City, Iowa and found himself employed as a child model for a department store at the age of 2. This was followed by a commercial for PET Milk, and movie roles, among them portraying the son of Shirley MacLaine in director Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Trouble with Harry (1955). He’d also starred in a pair of films with comedian Bob Hope before he was hired for Leave It to Beaver.

Say Hello to the Leave It to Beaver cast
Say hello to the Leave It to Beaver cast, 1957©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

When the series ended, Mathers pursued his education and, while still in high school, joined the National Guard in Van Nuys, California. He didn’t return to acting until 1978, which is when he appeared on stage with former co-star Tony Dow in Boeing, Boeing, which they performed for 10 weeks in Kansas City, Missouri. This was followed by an 18-month stint touring with So Long, Stanley. Then, in 1983, Mathers and his fellow cast mates (with the exception of the late Beaumont) reprised their roles in the reunion TV movie Still the Beaver, which spawned the series The New Leave It to Beaver — a show that itself ran for four seasons and 101 episodes.

Married three times, he’s the father of three and is a proud grandfather. In the following interview, he looks back at it all with great fondness. And you can’t help walking away from our chat feeling that Jerry Mathers, now 75, is just one happy guy.

FIRST FOR WOMEN (FFW): This is kind of a standard question when speaking to people from classic TV shows, but does it amaze you that Leave It to Beaver is still such a topic of conversation so many years later?

JERRY MATHERS: Not really, because it just never quit. Had it been something that kind of laid down and jumped back up that would be different, but it’s always been just very popular and I’ve always done a lot of interviews. I get a lot of people that see me on the street and still recognize me, and it’s always for Leave It to Beaver even though I’ve done a lot of other things. But it’s a pleasure as an actor to have something that’s so well recognized and so well received, especially for all these years.

FFW: What goes through your mind when you hear the words Leave It to Beaver?

JERRY MATHERS: Well, I just think of all the nice people I met. The cast was absolutely great, but we had a crew of almost 100 people, so there were cameramen, lighting guys, prop guys. We just had a really good time. They were very selective with the crew, because, of course, we were kids. They only hired pretty much family people that had kids so that they would kind of know how to deal with us. And it was just a real family atmosphere. Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher were the writers and between them they had 18 kids, so they were used to dealing with kids. Mr. Connolly had, I think nine, Mr. Mozier had nine, too. All the writers were family people and it was just a really nice place to work.

FFW: Oftentimes we need videos and photographs to bring back memories from years ago. For you, are there strong memories of shooting the show or do you need to watch episodes to have your memories stirred?

JERRY MATHERS: Well, I definitely couldn’t tell you the lines out of the episodes, but if I watch a few minutes of it I can tell you what episode it is, because there are clues. But if you just show me a generic dinner scene where we’re sitting around the dinner table, I couldn’t tell you what episode it was. But there are 234 episodes, so each one is distinct and has different people in it, different actors that are part of the ensemble cast. And as soon as I see one of them that may have been in only one or two shows, that narrows it down. But, again, it was just a really good time for me. It wasn’t anything that was stressful; it was just fun.

FFW: Given that we live in such cynical and divided times, what’s amazing is that the show still manages to have a voice despite our chaos as a society.

JERRY MATHERS: I think it’s because all the episodes are from real life. If you watch sitcoms today, a lot of them are what I call “joke shows,” where people have setup, setup, joke. And a lot of them really don’t have a lot of substance. But the world was just as cynical back then if not more, because even though it was made in ’57, we were coming out of the World War and then the Korean War. It was fairly tough times for a lot of people. It wasn’t the Depression by any means, but those were times that if you had a job, you were very lucky, and people were happy to be in the United States.

Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers in between scenes
Behind the scenes with Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers on Leave It to Beaver, 1957©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

It was just a really good time to be growing up for me. I’m very happy that I did Leave It to Beaver. I got a really good education. I had a private tutor, which is the education of the kings and queens of Europe. My dad ended up as the superintendent of L.A. City Schools, but at the time he was a vice principal and principal, and he could pick out of the entire L.A.

Unified District, which is huge. They have what they call studio teachers, and the pay is a lot more because they are also welfare workers. He could pick some great teachers for me, and Tony too, so we had really good teachers. Everything was just a win.

FFW: What about being a kid and kind of living in the spotlight with media attention? You’d done movies and appeared on TV shows, but this was consistent for all of those years. What kind of impact did that sort of thing have on you?

JERRY MATHERS: It wasn’t anything different for me. I’ve been an actor since I was two years old. I worked with Hitchcock, I did two movies with Bob Hope. I worked as much before Leave It to Beaver as I did during the time of Leave It to Beaver. People don’t pay a lot of attention to kids. Some people would recognize me on the street, but not that many. It was, like I keep saying, just a really good life. I got to do some fabulous things, like going to the Smithsonian where we’d have a private tour. Any place we went, we were singled out pretty much and got great treatment.

Jerry Mathers and Hugh Beaumont
There was a real connection between Jerry Mathers and TV dad Hugh Beaumont; 1958©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

And the thing is, I didn’t know there was another way of life. When I got out of Leave It to Beaver and went to a regular high school, it was very, very different. And it was something I liked doing. I got to play sports, which I didn’t do with Leave It to Beaver. It was a really fun time, and basically I had a hundred or a hundred and fifteen adults who were, in a lot of ways, like parents, and I was with them for eight hours a day.

And it was very important to keep not only myself, but Tony and all the kids happy, because you can’t make a kid work. If for some reason a child doesn’t want to work and they say, “I don’t like this. I’m not doing it anymore,” if it was an adult you’d say, “Fine, we’ll sue you. We’ll take everything you’ve got.’ That doesn’t work with kids at all. So we did all sorts of interesting things. They put up a basketball court and I played basketball with the sound man, the makeup man, and the wardrobe man on one team. And the grips and the lighting people. Tony had one team and I had another.

Further into the run, Jerry and Tony are definitely growing up
Further into the show’s run, Jerry and Tony are definitely growing up, 1961©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

And a lot of times between takes or at lunch, we’d play basketball, or we’d build a lot of things. We built a boat that was probably about 12 or 15 inches long and it cost an amazing amount of money, because we sent it to the wood shop and these guys would build it. They’re supposed to be building sets and instead they’re doing our boat or something like that. It was just a little boat that we took out to the lake and sailed, It was probably a foot long, maybe. So we just had all sorts of fun like that, and as I say, they were very, very happy to do that because they wanted us to be happy so that we wanted to go there every day. And we really did.

FFW: Kids on a lot of shows back then did not come out of their experience unscathed. It’s amazing you came out as adjusted as you did.

JERRY MATHERS: My dad had a lot to do with it. As I say, he retired as a superintendent of L.A. City Schools, but at the time I was doing Leave It to Beaver, he was a vice principal and then a principal. He was dealing with kids all the time, so he really knew what I should be doing, what I shouldn’t, where I needed to be school wise. So from basically first to eighth grade, until I went to high school, I did not ever go to school. Like I said, I had a private tutor. By about the fourth grade I was doing sixth and seventh grade work, because if I didn’t understand it, she was right there and said, “This is how you do it.” I’d get to understand it and then we’d move on.

FFW: So going to regular school was not that big a transition for you?

JERRY MATHERS: I actually started school about six weeks early, because I wanted to play football and they had a frosh team, and the frosh, the JV and varsity all practiced together during the summer. And so, just before school started, I made the team so when I started school, the people that were my friends there were all football players. Once you made the team, you were part of them, so nobody gave me any trouble, because I’d have some senior football players that were, like, “He’s on our team. You better leave him alone.” I had a gang, what can I tell you?

FFW: We were talking about life in the spotlight. Was it weird seeing your face on merchandise?

JERRY MATHERS: Actually, it was nice, because whatever the product was, they’d usually give you copies of their entire line. We used Schwinn bicycles on the show and they sent one home for myself, my sister and my brother. Tony got a racing bike with the handles bars that twisted under. It was just great things like that.

Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers
Promotional studio portrait of actors Tony Dow (L) and Jerry Mathers, circa 1957Getty

FFW: You and Tony Dow had a real nice on screen rapport and chemistry. Were you brotherly off screen as well?

JERRY MATHERS: I don’t know if we were brotherly, but we were very good friends. It’s funny, because in his family he was the youngest, but in mine I was the oldest — I was the Wally in my family and he was the Beaver in his.

FFW: Were you ready to move on when the show ended?

JERRY MATHERS: I didn’t really want to get off the show, but it was fortuitous because I could then go to high school and what I wanted to do was play sports. Tony had been a star athlete. He was a gymnast. In fact, that’s one of the reasons they picked him, but he had never really gotten to do his gymnastics. He would probably, had he not done Leave It to Beaver, have been an Olympian, because that’s what he was training for. Tony could take three or four steps, jump up in the air and do a front-flip and land on his feet. I said to myself, “I can’t do that.” I didn’t realize that most everybody couldn’t, because he was the only person that I was really around.

The Leave It to Beaver cast, 1958
The Leave It to Beaver cast, 1958©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

FFW: Did you have a nice connecton with Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley?

JERRY MATHERS: Hugh was interesting, because in reality he was a Methodist minister. Before Leave It to Beaver, he was at a very, very poor congregation in the worst part of L.A. that specialized in alcoholics. He was on basically Skid Row. Now, he wasn’t a part of that, but he went down there as his mission to try to save those people. So when he started doing Leave It to Beaver, although he was very happy to be an actor, he missed that. At the same time, he could put a lot more money into his work down there, because these people where he was couldn’t even afford a church. At the same time, he had a growing family, so that’s one of the reasons he became an actor. And on Leave It to Beaver, he could be like a minister when he took the boys in their room and gave us those little talks.

Barbara Billingsley was a good friend and an even better mentor. For me, she was like the favorite teacher that we all had in school. I was lucky enough to work with her for six years and have a life-long relationship with her. She was a very kind woman and a generous philanthropist who supported many charities, always ready to give anyone in need a helping hand. Barbara was even more sparkling and fun than June Cleaver. Every once in a while she would get frustrated or upset and we always knew when that was, because she would say, ‘Hell’s bells’ and then put her hands over her mouth with her cutest “oops” look. This was the only “curse word” that I ever heard her say. And she always looked flustered and turned red when she realized that other people had heard her say that. She would then apologize profusely.

Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow in 2004
Actors Jerry Mathers (left) and Tony Dow speak on stage at the 2nd Annual TV Land Awards held on March 7, 2004 at The Hollywood Palladium Getty

FFW: And in the ’80s, of course, you got to do Still the Beaver, which became The New Leave It to Beaver. What was that like?

JERRY MATHERS: Well, it was very easy because I knew everybody. These are people that I grew up with and it was people that I liked. There wasn’t anybody that we all said, “Oh, we don’t want that person back.” And Barbara Billingsley was wonderful. Sadly, Hugh Beaumont had passed before we were able to start the show, but Ken Osmond and Tony Dow were my very, very good friends my whole life. Now, after we finished the first show, I didn’t get to see them very much. I mean, we would make appearances and go to openings and things like that, but they were always friends of mine. So it’s nice to have friends from your childhood and then be able to work with them again as adults.

FFW: What was truly amazing is that the show came back two decades after the original ended, and yet it connected in a major way with the audience all those years later.

JERRY MATHERS: The whole cast and the writers agreed that we wanted to bring the show back exactly the same way, which meant all the episodes would feel like they came from real life. Everything on Leave It to Beaver were things that really did happen to kids. And on both shows, it wasn’t a situation comedy kind of thing; the humor came out of the characters.

FFW: There was an interview with Tony Dow where he said that sometimes a script would be too funny and they’d knock it down to be a chuckle rather than a laugh.

JERRY MATHERS: There aren’t really those big laughs in real life, so they wanted it to seem more like life was. And if there was something that was funny, it was humorous, but it wasn’t a situation where you’d fall on the floor laughing.

FFW: This is the biggest cliche in the world, but why did the show work?

JERRY MATHERS: Well, like I said, I think the main thing is it’s from real life. It wasn’t people writing jokes that they think are going to be funny or setting things up for a punchline. It’s called situation comedy and that’s what you’re watching. The Beaver does something, usually something wrong, and there are consequences, as he learns. And it obviously stood the test of time. The same things are happening to kids today that happened in the 1950s to the Beaver, because, again, it’s from real life.

FFW: You’ve mentioned a few times that it’s been a good life, and while this is a big overview question, how do you view your life?

The Cleaver family
Clockwise, from left: Tony Dow, Hugh Beaumont, Jerry Mathers, and Barbara Billingsley pose together in a promotional portrait for the television series, Leave It to Beaver, 1957 Getty

JERRY MATHERS: I’m very happy with my life. I’ve got wonderful kids, I’ve got grandchildren, I have a beautiful wife and we’re very happy. I live in the suburbs in a very, very nice house. And I’m not retired, because I go out all the time on speaking engagements. We also get to travel to colleges and all sorts of places all over the country.

And people are, I think, very happy to meet me and just say hello and get an autograph. They just light up and for me to sign my name and say hello is the easiest thing in the world. I ask them their name and I write, “Your friend, Jerry Mathers, Beaver.” The same autograph I’ve signed since 1957. They go away happy and I’m happy that I can make people that happy just by saying hello.


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