It to Beaver and Sputnik:
Both Launched October 4, 1957
By Beverly Cohn
Jerry "The Beav" Mathers
erry Mathers, now and forever a beloved icon, found a permanent place
in America's heart when at age seven he created the role of television's
clean-cut lovable kid, Theodore "The Beav" Cleaver, in the
sitcom Leave It To Beaver. For those of us of a certain age,
we fondly remember welcoming Wally, June, Ward, Eddie and "The
Beav" into our living rooms every week as though they were members
of our family.
The show was in development for a year and a half, and
when it finally aired, Leave It To Beaver enjoyed immediate success
and soared to the top of the ratings. The show ran for six seasons,
totaling 234 episodes, and generation after generation in over 100 countries
has enjoyed the continuing reruns.
The young Mathers was no stranger to performing, and
by the time he auditioned for the part, he had already racked up an
impressive list of credits ranging from modeling to being cast on The
Ed Wynn Show at the age of two. He also appeared in films, including
Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry, playing Shirley MacLaine's
son; This Is My Love, playing Dan Duryea's son; The Seven
Little Foys, playing Bob Hope's son; and he worked again with Hope
in That Certain Feeling. His modeling career began quite accidentally.
He and his mom were walking through a department store and a man ran
up to them and said he looked like the little boy in their Christmas
ad. He said that little boy was getting too big, and asked Mathers's
mom if her little one could model for their catalog.
Q: How did you get the part of "The Beav?"
A: The audition process took four to five weeks and
around 5,000 kids were competing for the role. The producers were down
to the last 10 actors and it was the final audition. I didn't enjoy
interviews particularly, and I had a Cub Scouts meeting that I didn't
want to miss. They noticed I was a bit fidgety and asked me what was
wrong. I explained that I had a Cub Scouts meeting and was worried about
being late. They said I could leave. My mother thought that perhaps
I shouldn't have mentioned that I wanted to leave. Well, I got the job
anyway because the producers said they wanted a kid who was happier
going to a Cub Scouts meeting than being an actor.
Q: Did you ever take acting lessons?
A: No. But, I was not a hyper kid and took direction
well. I found it really interesting going to the studios. My mom would
take me on the Red Line or a bus and that was fun. I never received
pressure to get a role so it was all like a big adventure. If I got
the part, that was fine. If I didn't, that was also fine.
Q: So many child stars don't transition well into
adulthood. Why did you turn out so seemingly well-adjusted?
A: I come from a very strong, stable family. My father
was an educator, and unlike a lot of families of child actors, I wasn't
the sole source of income. Also, after Leave it to Beaver ended,
I took a break from show business. I wanted to go to a normal high school
and play sports. I attended Notre Dame High School where my dad was
an athletic coach, and after graduation I went to Berkeley where I majored
in philosophy. I was a self-made millionaire by the time I was 13 and
used my earnings, which were invested wisely, to put myself through
school. I took a straight job at a bank as a loan officer and then went
into real estate development. I also served in the Air National Guard
during the Vietnam War. I had a pretty full life. I think waiting around
for the phone to ring is what has caused a lot of pain with some former
Q: During the six-year run of the show, you didn't
have a regular school experience. How were you educated?
A: I had three hours of private schooling around my
shooting schedule, which was from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Since my dad
was a vice-principal, he had access to the finest teachers and selected
the best to tutor me. I received an education that only kings and queens
Q: Going off to school and working in the "real"
world obviously served to help ground you. Was that one of the reasons
you decided to turn down another long contract after Leave It To
A: Yes. When you're a successful actor, so many people
cater to your every whim. At one point, I had 45 people looking after
me. They tell you how wonderful you are and you can do no wrong. It's
real easy to lose your way and develop a very jaded idea of your own
Q: What brought you back to acting?
A: I actually acted occasionally while I was at Berkeley.
But I really got back in when my good friend Tony Dow, my brother Wally
in the series, called me to do a stage play called Boeing, Boeing
in Kansas City, Missouri. We sold out the eight-week run in one day
and I've been working pretty much ever since. In 1983, we made a television
movie called Still the Beaver, which was followed by several
years of The New Leave It To Beaver.
Q: Out of your long list of credits, what role had
the most profound effect on you?
A: The Beaver. I grew up in everyone's living room and
that fostered a very special, lasting feeling. That reminds me. One
day I was home with my family and I saw a lot of flashes outside the
living room window. When I looked out, there was a family from Indiana
on my front lawn shooting pictures of my house. They thought it was
perfectly okay to be there because they probably grew up with me. But,
it's a little scary because with all the information available on the
Internet, anyone can find you and that might not always be a good thing.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
A: Do as much as you can while you're in school. Participate
in plays or skits and learn how to sight-read, as that's really important.
Q: Do you have a close-knit family?
A: Yes. I have three children ranging in age from 21
to 29. There are 35 of us in the immediate family and we all get together
once a month and celebrate anyone having a birthday.
Q: You've been married twice. What's the biggest
challenge in making a relationship work?
A: Knowing that the person I think I see is really that
person. We all have defenses and shields, and I want to be sure that
I'm getting the real person and that we will accept each other "as is."
Q: How do you want to be remembered?
A: I would like to be remembered as a good person. That
I didn't just pass through, but did something.
Mathers certainly does give back, as he is involved
in a multitude of charitable organizations including the Center for
Healthy Aging in Santa Monica where he has been active in fundraising.
Says Mathers, "Seniors are not a protected class and the agenda at the
center is to help them." He also speaks at conventions and trade shows
on the state of the American family as compared to the mythical Cleavers
of the 1950s.
So, could a little boy born in Sioux City, Iowa become
one of the most famous people ever on television? People magazine said
yes when it named him as one of the most well-known individuals in television
history. Americans, as well as people throughout the world, continue
to recognize "The Beav" --- who will forever be in our hearts and remind
us of a gentler, more innocent time.