A Conversation with Television Icon 📺 Jerry Mathers

Jerry Mathers is an American Icon whose presence undoubtedly continues to contribute to our collective consciousness. Born on June 2, 1948, in Sioux City, Iowa, he started as a child model from the age of two, and that led to his television and show business career in live television in the early 1950s. Jerry first worked on the popular Spike Jones live show. Jones was an American musician and bandleader Spike Jones and his City Slickers whose signature concept The Musical Depreciation Revue was satirical arrangements of popular songs, loud and not-quite-jazz-music of the 50s featuring musical riffs punctuated with unconventional noises like gunshots, whistles, and outrageous farcical vocals. His drummer would use trash can lids as cymbals and the trumpet players would use toilet plungers as mutes. The slapstick gimmick was certain whimsical instrumentals would cue Spike to drop his pants revealing his very loud boxer shorts.

When Jerry Mathers was about 3 years old he would walk out on stage with a big sign and start pulling on Spike’s coattails. The sign read ‘commercial’ to let him know that he had to take a break. Spike would chide him and shoo him away and then eventually go to the commercial. Working on the Spike Jones Show brought Jerry more work because people saw that he could go out on stage with the irascible Jones and not get rattled.

Jerry’s Mathers’ first foray into television was his debut in 1950 for a Pet Milk commercial with Ed Wynn on the Colgate Comedy Hour. The set up: A huge bar room scene with cowboys fighting one another and actor Ed Wynn tending bar. Jerry comes in through the swinging doors — amidst all the stuntmen brawling and breaking bottles over each other’s heads — in diapers, a ten-gallon hat, six guns, and his big cowboy boots. One of the cowboys picks little Jerry up and sets him down on the bar where he pounds his little fist and utters his very first lines, “I’m the toughest hombre in these parts and you better have my brand” as Ed Wynn puts a can of Pet Condensed Milk on the bar! ( I wish there was an existing copy of this commercial )

Jerry as David Myer in This is My Love (1954) starring Linda Darnell

Jerry Mathers began to get cast in many early 1950s television programs, variety hours, and early live dramatic shows. And in 1954, he made his film debut in This is My Love starring Linda Darnell and Dan Duryea.

Soon after appearing in a major motion picture his impish, precocious ways caught the eye of master director/storyteller Alfred Hitchcock who cast Jerry as Arnie Rogers for his mystery/comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955) starring John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine in her first role, and some of the best character actors– Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock and Edmund Gwenn. Next up at age 5 Jerry appeared with Bob Hope in two major motion pictures as Bryan Lincoln Foy, the black licorice lovin’ little rascal in The Seven Little Foys (1955) co-starring James Cagney and George Tobias. And he played the wonderful Norman Taylor in That Certain Feeling (1956) co-starring Eva Marie Saint, George Sanders, and Pearl Bailey.

The Trouble with Harry official trailer:

Bob Hope was wonderful with Jerry Mathers in the hilarious scene with the cute little guy eating his black licorice both actors’ body comedy was spot on — Hope choreographed the scene brilliantly with Jerry. It was pure genius. Jerry’s tugging at Bob’s coat, kicking and screaming the whole way.

Bob Hope actually played a part in saving Jerry Mather’s life on the set of the vaudevillian biopic The Seven Little Foys. Back then they used candles to light the stage. Jerry was sitting up in the catwalk and the stuntman was supposed to put gasoline on the curtain so it would ignite and all the extras were supposed to panic and run out of the theater, with the stuntman dressed as Bob Hope climbing up and saving little Bryan Foy (Jerry Mathers) from the flames. Well, Jerry was sitting up on the catwalk when they accidentally put too much gasoline on the curtains, that caught fire. The extras who were supposed to be fleeing the theater saw all these flames and actually did panic, and the stuntman dressed as Bob Hope got pushed out the door and no one realized that Jerry was still up on the catwalk but Bob Hope.

Bob courageously threw a blanket over himself and ran through the flames, grabbed a ladder, and got Jerry out safely. In another interview, Jerry said that he remembers the flames but it was also dripping like raining fire fragments because the cloth as it burned was dropping off. It must have been terrifying! So thanks to Bob Hope for saving Jerry’s life. They couldn’t even use the footage from the first fire. They had to re-shoot the entire scene all over again because there was too much smoke and flames and they couldn’t see Bob Hope climb up and rescue Jerry so the very next day they had to do it all over again with A LOT less gasoline on the curtains. They didn’t even use a stuntman, they shot it with Bob Hope who went up and got Jerry but the scene was a lot more toned down.

I found a small clip from the film which includes the re-shot recreation of the fire at the Iroquois Theater — with a little less gasoline this time!– and Bob Hope climbing the ladder and not a stuntman as planned. Hope is not only a comic genius but courageous!

Jerry talks about Bob Hope –

“He was really a fun person to work with. I did That Certain Feeling with him too and actually I did The Seven Little Foys first and I had a very small part in that and he liked me so much that in the next one in his next movie I had a very very big part and it was with Norman Panama and Melvin Frank who were some great writers if you go back and look at some of the things they’ve done and they both directed, I think they were writer/producers but because there were two directors we would do some scenes twenty and thirty times and the one would come over and say you do it this way and then they’d come back and say okay now do it this way and you just kept doing it so as a child it was I imagine now as an adult actor I would even think its tedious. It’s a great movie. And he always made it fun. You know we’d sit there and do this same scene and he just made it so much fun as I say most people know him by seeing him on stage and he was just fun loving and just a great person to work with.

…Bob Hope was always seen as this very lovable person but George Sanders in a lot of his movies played, not villains but he had kind of an edge to him so when I first met him it was actually kind of scary and the other person.”

Among the other cast members he was very taken with Pearl Bailey who sang to him in the film, he liked her very much and thought the world of her.

 “She made the movie so much fun and her and Bob Hope used to clown around it was just so much fun to watch.”

Jerry Mathers in That Certain Feeling (1956)

Jerry Mathers in The Seven Little Foys (1955)

Other major motion pictures of the 1950s Jerry Mathers appeared in:

Men of the Fighting Lady (1954) and director Nicolas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) starring James Mason and Barbara Rush. The gritty and obscure film noir The Shadow on the Window (1957) stars Philip Carey, Betty Garrett, and John Drew Barrymore. And The Deep Six (1958) starring Alan Ladd.

“Our generation is the first to have grown up with TV. I’m one of the first kids that they watched grow up on television.” –Jerry Mathers

It was the advent of television. TV was something new, and it was all live studio work. Jerry Mathers explains that while there were child stars in motion pictures, there weren’t really any television child actors, so they thought they could pool from child models who were used to being out on stage and could follow direction.

Heinz 57 was sponsoring and premiering a lot of television variety shows and pilots and after a year or more of languishing it was actually General Douglas MacArthur who was on the board of Remington-Rand (Typewriters) who decided to option the series. The pilot for the show was initially called It’s a Small World.

There was a cattle call for the pilot show where over 5000 young boys of varying ages turned up to audition for the part of both brothers and their friends. His mom wasn’t sure she wanted Jerry to do a series. After many weeks of showing up for the grueling audition schedule, Jerry started to get a bit tired of the process of sticking around, saying his lines, and being told to come back the next day as they weeded out the potential actors for the series. It came down to the last 10 kids and the day he was supposed to show up at the casting call, he had his first cub scout meeting, so he didn’t want to go. Writers Joe Connolly and Bob Mosher both had big families and were used to the machinations of children. They noticed that Jerry was acting pretty fidgety on the rehearsal stage. He agreed to go to the audition only after his mother fixed it so they could go to the audition and his cub scout meeting right afterward, Jerry even wore his cub scout uniform to the audition.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, 1957-63, Hugh Beaumont (kneeling), Bob Mosher (co-creator), Jerry Mathers, Tony Dow, Joe Connelly (co-creator) (sitting), Norman Tokar (director) (kneeling), 1958, on-set

It seemed like it took forever to watch each kid go in and run their lines. Finally, he was called in. Young Jerry went inside, said his lines and came right out in a short period of time. His mom asked why he was done so quickly, he told her that they asked him if he wanted to be there and he said “no,” he’d rather go to his cub scout meeting. That night they called and said he’d gotten the job! They’d rather have a boy that wanted to go to a cub scout meeting rather than be an actor. The producers chose him because they wanted a boy who possessed the genuine spirit of a real little boy.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Jerry Mathers, Hugh Beaumont, ‘The Black Eye’, (Season 1), 1957-63

And of course, Connolly and Mosher just loved young Jerry every time he showed up for each exhaustive part of the audition process. Jerry Mathers is the consummate professional. He began his career at age 2, he took direction well, learned his lines perfectly, and gained immeasurable experience in the early infancy of television with variety shows and dramatic live performances. He is such an extraordinary actor and a natural talent that he makes you believe he wasn’t following direction at all, and somehow he had manifested Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver as a very real character — a universally lovable little guy. And after listening to interviews and talking to the actor himself, he makes it clear that there was a little bit of himself in Beaver and a bit of Beaver in Jerry Mathers. The skill involved makes you think that what you’re seeing is real, and that is an art. A lot goes into the process of creating, not only a believable and beloved iconic character but a television series that will go on to last decade after decade. And as you will learn from my conversation with Jerry Mathers, that lovable little boy was very serious and focused on the craft of acting all while having the time of his life!

“You know, working isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. I wonder why older people do it so much?” —Beaver Cleaver

On Friday, October 4th, 1956, months after the pilot aired, Leave It to Beaver debuted on CBS and began a legacy of the magic and innocence of childhood. The iconic television sitcom Leave It to Beaver is about an inquisitive and often unsuspicious little lad whose misadventures within the world of his suburban middle-class life symbolized the idealization of the American family during post-WWII.

The first sublimely marvelous episode ‘Beaver Gets Spelled’ introduces Beaver and Wally navigating the tricky mechanism of kid vs school and authority. It includes a scene where they feign taking their baths by running the tub, dampening towels, and throwing in some turtle dirt so it leaves a ring. The next episode ‘Captain Jack’ made television history by featuring the first toilet shown on TV. Beaver and Wally send away a pet alligator from the back of a comic book. In the 1960s, I ordered all sorts of things as a kid, including a giant rubber fly, sea monkeys, and X-ray glasses! It’s a quirky entertaining episode with wonderful moments — for instance when Ward accuses Minerva the cleaning woman of getting drunk on the job when she says there’s an alligator in the basement sink. In 1997 ‘Captain Jack’ was ranked number 42 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

In 1957, radio, film, and television writers/producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher conceptualized a television show that would feature the family life of an average suburban couple and their young children. Connelly and Mosher met in New York City while working on the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, which they continued to be involved with after it moved to television in 1950. What set the show apart from other family sitcoms and domestic comedies of that time period like Ozzie & Harriet or Father Knows Best is that their show would be conveyed through the eyes of the children and not their parents, which introduced a new direction for a mainstream family genre, a series being told from the kid’s point of view. Leave It to Beaver is a thoughtfully lyrical insight of middle-class American boyhood.

Both Connolly and Mosher had kids of their own and actually got their inspiration for the characters, plot lines, and dialogue from their own personal lives and conversations with their children. Most of all 234 episodes, 39 per year for 6 years, were taken from real-life situations.

Joe Connolly collected stories in a notebook over the years with anecdotes based on things that really happened to family and friends, embellishing a bit along the way. “If we hire a writer we tell him not to make up situations, but to look into his own background. It’s not a ‘situation’ comedy where you have to create a situation for a particular effect. Our emphasis is on a natural storyline.” -Joe Connolly

“The Haircut” episode, for example, is based on something that happened with Bob Mosher’s son who had to wear a stocking cap in a school play because he gave himself a terrible haircut like the one Beaver gave himself with the help of his brother Wally of course!

Even the name Beaver was inspired by a merchant marine friend of Joe Connolly’s during WWII. Both Connolly and Mosher became executive producers on the show having initially written all the earlier episodes. Later on, they began accepting scripts from other writers.

The series cinematographers were Mack Stengler, who shot 122 episodes between 1958 and 1962, and William A. Sickner who worked on 37 episodes between 1957 and 1959 and later included Fred Mandl, and Ray Rennahan. The cinematographers often keenly lensed the series using angles that emphasized the world from Beaver, Wally, and their mischievous friends’ perspectives.

Director Norman Tokar, who had experience working with children, directed most of the episodes for the first three years and developed the characters of Eddie Haskell and Larry Mondello. Other directors involved in the series include Earl Bellamy, David Butler (who had worked with Shirley Temple), Bretaigne Windust, Gene Reynolds, and also Hugh Beaumont directed various episodes. Norman Abbott directed most of the episodes during the run of the last three years.

Leave it to Beaver is so memorable for us because it’s an allegorical journey of innocence and the magical world of childhood. Beaver is the ‘innocent’ while Wally is the ‘transitional’ character. Wally tries to explain to his brother what the world is really like because he’s been out in the world longer. Beaver often looks to Wally for guidance as he tries to navigate the awkward and often perplexing situations he gets himself into.

Beaver grew up on the television screen, and we watched his trajectory of his adventures and life lessons through his perspective. The show shared the valuable and straightforward morals he learns about life, love, and friendship. And amidst all the shenanigans and mischief, Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver is a very loyal, caring, and kind little fella. Leave it to Beaver has touched fans’ lives immeasurably at the core of our collective hearts.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Jerry Mathers on-set, (1959), 1957-63

Not only is Leave It to Beaver known as the first television show to reveal a toilet on air but quite a few scenes occurred in the boy’s bathroom. There’s even an episode where Beaver allows a bum to come in and take a bath getting all sudsed up in Ward and June’s bathroom. Then he takes one of Ward’s best suits! It’s a crazy bit of trivia but tubs and toilets were what the censors took notice of!

Jerry has mentioned in other interviews as well as in our conversation that the environment on the set was geared toward everyone involved feeling like a family and making sure that the crew’s families felt welcomed and included. Writers Joe Connolly & Bob Mosher visualized the series with a very conscious aim at representing the idealization of the American family and the American Dream of the 1950s but somehow they managed to narrate finely drawn messages within the framework of the storylines. They even contributed to The Munsters which was a way to invert the average All-American ideal using an unconventional family of monsters to introduce not so subtly, the idea of ‘difference.’

Leave It to Beaver was filmed at Republic Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles during its earliest run of Season 1 and 2. Then the production moved to Universal Studios for the last four seasons of the show. All the exteriors, including the façades of the two Cleaver houses, were filmed on both studios’ back lots.

One of the intros for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was done on the set of the Cleaver home. The studio went around looking for places and they decided on the Cleaver living room. If you know the design of the house and all the furniture – notice the foyer and as Jerry Mathers says- “It’s probably a murder mystery – but they actually filmed on their set (Leave It to Beaver) one day…”

One of the significant elements of the series was the musical theme song at the opening of Leave it to Beaver and it’s incidental music throughout. Each episode was accompanied by whimsical, evocative, and poignant melodies that help elevate the storylines in moments that invoked either the adventurous spirit, or the curious imagination, or tapped into the bonds of affection and kindness. The opening spirited theme song “The Toy Parade” was written by David Kahn, Melvyn Leonard, and Mort Greene. For the rest of the wall-to-wall incidental music, CBS utilized stock music from their Television Orchestra library, suggestive of shows from that decade and the early 1960s. There are expressive melodies used in Leave It to Beaver that can be heard in the studio’s other shows, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The final season showcased one of my favorite composers Pete Rugolo who scored many television series of the 1960s.

Essentially the typical setup for each episode of Leave It to Beaver places Beaver or Wally or both boys in situations where they get into some sort of mishap or predicament. First, they try to noodle their way out of it somehow by covering up or avoiding the issue, eventually coming before his wise but not infallible mother and father June and Ward for his/their admonishment. Often June and Ward would discuss their own shortsightedness in handling the boys, ultimately admitting that they have a lot to learn as parents. This is part of what makes the show so earnest and endearing. And the affectionate and often humorous chemistry Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont share comes across as real as can be.

Frequently Ward tries to impart some kernel of wisdom referring to classical myths and literary characters as models for teaching the boys moral lessons about making good choices, and solving problems. Ward often idealizes his own childhood, forgetting the various ways boys can get in trouble. He gives the boys Tom Sawyer to read, forgetting that the book is full of Tom’s bad habits and delinquency. Applying the logic to their own lives, for example when Beaver fights with Larry, and Ward tells him the story of Damon and Pythias, and the boys make a friendship pact that at first backfires on Beaver when Larry takes advantage expecting him to ‘die even’ for him by giving him his math homework. Ultimately, Ward’s story gets through to Larry, and the boys learn a valuable lesson about integrity, loyalty, and friendship.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Barbara Billingsley, Jerry Mathers, Hugh Beaumont, 1957-63.

One of the tenets of the show is the emphasis on cleanliness and the importance of good grooming habits, manners, appearance, and caring for your personal belongings. Like not throwing your grubby socks under the bed or in contrast to June’s wishes that the boys take a bath, the two run the tub, dampen towels, and then throw some of Beaver’s turtle dirt in to create a ring.

While girls were still ‘creepy’, It’s a mischievous ruse that would eventually be left behind as Wally grew up and pampered and preened himself once he started to notice girls. Beaver’s awakening came a bit later, though he did have sweet crushes on Miss Canfield (Diane Brewster) and Miss Landers (Sue Randall), he wasn’t above coming up with great verbal scourges like telling Violet Rutherford “You do too drink gutter water” after she gives him a black eye and calling Linda Denison ‘a smelly old ape’ when the other kids accuse him of being her boyfriend.

And Leave it to Beaver dealt with issues that were pretty enlightened for its era. There was an episode that dealt sensitively with alcoholism as Beaver becomes aware of the issue within a very tender friendship with the house painter. There is a storyline where one of June’s college friend’s son Dudley comes to spend time with the Cleavers. Wally is asked to befriend him and introduce him to his friends. Dudley is gentile and cultured, playing piano, and wearing an overcoat and fedora. He carries a briefcase to school which serves as fodder for Eddie Haskell to ridicule the young man for being an oddball. Dudley was an outsider, the idea of his difference was blaring and the show handled it to subtle perfection. It was a very interesting character as he represented a very ‘different’ sort of teenage boy.

There was also the episode that showed a Latino immigrant family whose little boy Chuey communicates with ease, without Beaver speaking Spanish embracing their newfound friendship without prejudice, until Eddie Haskell injects his cruel joke laced with racism when Beaver asks Eddie to teach him a Spanish phrase to surprise Chuey with, Beaver innocently tells Chuey he has ‘a face like a pig’. Even the episode with Lillian Bronson as the local ‘witch’ who was really just an older woman living by herself in a spooky run-down house was a lesson in not judging people by their appearance.

Then there was the episode that dealt with classism involving the Junkman’s kids. While June worries a bit that the boys will be playing in a dirty environment surrounded by garbage and rats and boys who might be rough around the edges — boys from the other side of town–  she learns that there is understanding and alternate wisdom to be shared from unexpected places and it teaches her not to judge people by their station in life, as they share endearing observations about June and Ward that impress not only Beaver and Wally who have a new perspective on their parents seeing them “through the eyes of the Junkman’s kids.”

Leave it to Beaver in its own innocuous way even Introduced esoteric themes of the supernatural in a humorous fashion with the episode Voodoo Magic where Beaver believes he’s inflicted a curse on Eddie Haskell by sticking pins and nails in his Raggedy Andy doll. It’s one of my favorites of the series. Ward in his calm and sage manner even teaches Beaver that you can beat a bully like Lumpy Rutherford by not becoming like him. But Ward learns his own lesson when he realizes that he sabotages Beaver’s self-confidence when he is disappointed that he’s only playing a yellow canary in the school revue and not a bald eagle. His underlying dismay at his son’s representation of masculinity by playing a wimpy bird sends Beaver into a panic on the night of the show.

And Beaver catches the capitalist fever in Water, Anyone? when the water main is shut off, and he gets inside information from the water department guys digging up the road. Beaver proceeds to try and sell his jugs of water from his wagon to the neighborhood, inciting one of the local housewives to call Ward up and invoke the word ‘communism’ in her rant. It’s another of my favorites. And there’s more than one episode that shows Beaver’s sensitivity and caring for all creatures great and small.

After hearing Miss Landers recite a poem about trees, he is so moved that he goes to rescue the tree given to him on his birthday a few years back, which is still rooted at his old house. Beaver digs it up with the help of Larry Mondello and sneaks it back to replant it at his new house. What might seem like simple childhood exploits, there is always a small shining gem of wisdom within the narrative.

Some people may assess the show as syrupy or fluffy but the show is way more nuanced about unconditional love, acceptance, tolerance, difference, and embracing the vast untapped qualities revealed by a child’s flourishing imagination.

“Give the shrimp a paddle!”

Therefore the show shouldn’t be constrained by 1950s standards. Uncle Billy and Aunt Martha who is an elitist, were single adults with no experience raising children, Billy is painted as sort of the ‘black sheep’ on Ward’s side of the family, a braggart and exaggerator who travels and doesn’t have a stable lifestyle and June’s Aunt Martha doesn’t seem to be in touch with how to raise boys in a contemporary manner, dressing Beaver in short pants that lead to him getting into a brawl at school. Even Mrs. Mondello has to raise the problematic Larry as her husband is always out of town and rarely taking charge at home, leaving her to scramble for advice, often looking to Ward to help straighten out Larry when he gets into mischief.

Of course, Eddie Haskell is an archetypal anti-social troublemaker who is the counterbalance to Wally’s clean-cut, always-follow-the-rules kind of idealized All-American boy.

The series offers us drunks, bums, effete males, bullies, fat shaming, and the emotional subject of divorce. A friend of Beaver’s from camp Konig spends the weekend. He is bought off with gifts and cash to keep him placated while he’s left alone amidst a hostile divorce, where the parents remarry every other year. This episode features another fine child actor, Barry Gordon who was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Nick in A Thousand Clowns on Broadway revising the role in the film in 1965.

Jerry Mathers is both fortunate and burdened — he will be forever associated with an eternal boy in the mind of the collective American audience. He will be typecast forever in our imaginations as a part of the cultural iconography of nostalgia for believed better bygone days.

Beaver is an ‘every kid’ and each episode is filmed almost like a fable. There is a sweet alchemy that creates a world that feels comfortable and comforting amidst an early suburban enchantment that is gratifying. Beyond the nostalgia, there is an incredibly nuanced sentiment within the series and the performances — clever morality plays which are veiled in the everyday adventures that wind up mattering a whole lot.

There are just wonderful ‘time period’ aspects to the show that are steeped in nostalgia. And you’ll hear expressions like ‘creepy rat’ ‘gosh’ ‘grubby’ ‘wise guy’ and ‘A hunk of milk’ or a hunk of anything really. The worries were whether you washed your feet, did not throw your dirty socks under the bed, not losing your library book, and not playing hooky from school!

Or you could be like Beaver, climbing into a giant steamy cup of billboard soup, ditching dancing class, spitting off a bridge, building a clubhouse, camping out in the yard during a torrential downpour, selling perfume that smells like an old catchers mitt, getting a black eye from a girl, and sneaking an alligator into the house…

I’ll just mention a few predicaments Beaver gets himself into, especially with the help of his best friend Larry. Beaver lets Larry talk him into drilling a few holes in the garage wall, and after Ward tells him if he doesn’t pay attention to the rules, they’re going to have nothing but trouble between them. So Beaver tells him he’s running away so Ward never has to be troubled with him hanging around there — no more. Of course, he gets as far as Larry Mondello’s dinner table with three desserts while June is frantic and Ward won’t bend… at first!

The boys are so late to school for the third time in one week when a truck crushes their lunch boxes that they play hooky and wind up on a television commercial at the local grocery store. One day the boys smoke from the Austrian Meerschaum pipe Mr. Rutherford sends the family – first they try just some coffee grinds then used cigarette butts Larry collects from last night’s company–they both get sick, and Wally is the one who gets blamed for smoking. Beaver believes Larry who tells him that Mrs. Rayburn has a spanking machine in her office closet then gets himself locked inside the school that night and needs the fire department to get him out — making himself a ‘most conspicuous’ character. Then the very next day he gets his head stuck in the iron fence in the park, making himself yet again that’s right — ‘conspicuous’.  I got my own head stuck in the wrought iron railing in our house when I was about his age. Let me assure you… It’s not fun!

Leave it to Beaver’s Reception and Legacy:

Garnering national praise, Leave It to Beaver ran for six full 39-week seasons (234 episodes), ending its run in 1963, partly because Wally was about to enter college and the brotherly dynamic at the heart of the show would end. After the series ended its run, it quickly found its place in reruns throughout the U.S. and as far away as Australia and Pakistan. Leave it to Beaver has never been off the air. The show has been a cult hit for decades and will be eternally beloved by fans old and new.

The show received two Emmy nominations in 1958 for Best New Program Series of the Year and Best Teleplay Writing—Half Hour or Less (Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher) for the premiere episode, “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled”. Variety said the show “has consistently poured forth warmth, wit, and wisdom without condescension or pretense.” TV Guide noted that the show was “one of the most honest, most human and most satisfying situation comedies on TV.”

The show has enjoyed a renaissance in popularity since the 1970s through off-network syndication, a reunion television movie (Still the Beaver, 1983), and a sequel series, The New Leave It to Beaver (1985–89).

Ted Turner, center, gets help putting on a sweater that was a gift from TV’s Cleaver family on Thursday, April 24, 1986, in Los Angeles at Universal City Studios. Turner WTBS-TV MCA Inc. have signed an exclusive agreement to air “The New Leave It To Beaver” show. Pictured left to right are: (front row) Sidney Sheinberg, president Of MCA Turner, Jerry Mathers (the Beaver)/(back row) Tony Dow, and Barbara Billingsley. (AP Photo/Lennox Mclendon)

In 1984, Jerry Mathers was awarded the Young Artist’s Former Child Star Special Award. In 1987, Ken Osmond and Tony Dow were both honored with the Young Artist’s Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2003, Diane Brewster was nominated for TV Land’s Classic TV Teacher of the Year Award while, in 2005, Ken Osmond was nominated for TV Land’s Character Most Desperately in Need of a Timeout Award. Leave It to Beaver placed on Time Magazine’s “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time” list. Bravo ranked Beaver 74th on their list of the 100 greatest TV characters.

When it celebrated its 50th anniversary on October 4, 2007, the show became the longest-running scripted show in television history. It is currently streaming on Me-TV, and in countries throughout the world, Jerry Mathers is one of the most recognizable faces, ranked by People Magazine as one of the most well-known individuals in television history. His popularity and the eternal symbol of boyhood have made him an American Icon.

In June of 2010, after 52 years, the complete 234 episodes of Leave It To Beaver plus many extras, were released in a six-set DVD package by Shout Factory.

I was reading some IMDb trivia about Jerry Mathers and I saw that In 1960, MGM toyed with the idea of doing an all-male remake of 1939’s The Women which would have been entitled, Gentlemen’s Club. And like the female version, this would have involved an all-male cast and the plot would have centered around a man (Jeffrey Hunter) who recently discovers that his wife is having an affair with another man (Earl Holliman) and he goes to Reno to file for a quicky divorce so he can start his life over.

Although nothing ever came of this, it would have consisted of the following ensemble: Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Heal), Earl Holliman (Christopher Allen), Tab Hunter (Simon Fowler), Lew Ayres (Count Vancott), Robert Wagner (Mitchell Aarons), James Garner (Peter Day), James Stewart (Mr. Heal), Ronald Reagan (Larry), Troy Donahue (Norman Blake), and Stuart Whitman (Oliver, the bartender who spills the beans about the illicit affair).. AND… Jerry Mathers as Little Martin. Jeffrey Hunter would have been great as Jerry Mathers’s dad in the film.

Jerry spent years acting in plays such as Boeing, Boeing, Who’s On First, and So Long Stanley on dinner-theater stages across the country, in Midwest and Sunbelt cities, drawing sellout crowds. In So Long Stanley Jerry Mathers played a guy going through a divorce, and must once again lean on Tony Dow’s character to help him out of his funk as a suicidal loser suffering from  ‘rejection hysteria.’ “People have a tough time accepting me in a role with psychological problems” -Jerry Mathers

Jerry debuted on Broadway in the role of Wilbur Turnblad in the Tony-award-winning musical Hairspray and drew a lot of praise for his keen performance as Wilbur!

He returned to California to become the host of a radio show for a couple of years as an FCC-licensed broadcaster — guest hosts on radio programs from coast to coast.

Jerry Mathers was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in the mid-1990s. This forced the actor to change his lifestyle habits, including eating and exercise. After Jerry took preventative measures, he lost 55 pounds! Now he has become one of the leading spokespeople raising awareness about the disease and is one of the foremost lecturers on living with diabetes. He also works with organizations to make the drugs available to those who are not financially able to afford the high cost of the medications and has even spoken to the Congressional Caucus on diabetes at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

Jerry Mathers is still friends with Tony Dow and Richard Correll who played friend Richard Rickover. Ironically Richard was the one friend who rarely if ever got Beaver into hot water on the show, and here they are still friends after all these years. It’s just wonderful!

Jerry Mathers television credits include:

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet 1952 * is the lost Halloween episode!

Lux Video Theatre 1955 * General Electric Theater 1955 * Matinee Theater 1955 * Screen Directors Playhouse 1956 * Warner Brothers Presents 1956 * Studio 57 (1957) * December Bride * Red Skelton Show * Screen Directors Playhouse * Ray Bolger Show * Martin and Lewis * George Gobel Show * NBC Matinee Theater * Texaco Theater * Bob Hope Show, * Four Star Review * Spike Jones * Colgate Comedy Hour * Art Linkletter’s House Party * Insight (TV series) 1966 * The Dating Game 1966 * Family Affair 1966-71 * Batman (TV series) 1968 * Lassie 1968 * My Three Sons 1970 * Lily Tomlin for President 1982 * The Love Boat 1987 * The New Leave it to Beaver 1983-1989 * Quantum Leap 1989 * Diagnosis Murder 1999 * Saturday Night Live * Academy Awards (presenter) * Vengeance Unlimited * Alan Thicke Show * Vicki Lawrence Show * Match Game * Hollywood Squares * Married with Children * Family Feud – celebrity edition * TV’s All Time Favorites * Dick Clark’s Super Bloopers and Practical Jokes * Parker Lewis Can’t Lose * Flying High * Hardcastle and McCormick.

Jerry Mathers has also had recurring spots on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. Additionally, the “3rd Annual TV Land Awards” (2005) as John the gardener (“Desperate Classic Housewives” skit), “The War at Home” (2006), “Getting Around – Alternatives for Seniors Who No Longer Drive” – Host, PBS Documentary, (2007).

And has appeared in…

The Girl, the Gold Watch & Dynamite TV movie (1981) Back to the Beach (1987) with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, Down the Drain (1990) The Other Man (1994) Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) Sundance Film Festival judges award winner, Angels with Angles (2005), Larry the Cable Guy: the Health Inspector 2006) Will to Power (2008) the short film-The Hitchhiker (2014)

Jerry Mathers stars in the short film Lucky Day (2015) A dark comedy short with Jerry Mathers playing a bank president who is taken hostage by his wife’s lover and forced to clean out the vault.

My conversation with Jerry Mathers

Jo: Hi, it’s Jo.

Jerry: Hi, how are you doing?

Jo: How are you my friend?

Jerry: Couldn’t be better.

Jo: That’s good to hear. I thought at first maybe you had gone to put on some fresh socks. [laughter]

Jerry: I always put on fresh socks.

Jo: That was the quintessential worry on the show, right!

Jerry: Absolutely!

Jo: I did too since I thought that it’s only fair.

Jerry: It’s always nice to get up in the morning. Put on new clothes and go out and face the day. With fresh socks.

Jo: Yes, indeed it’s all about a day with fresh socks!

Jerry: That’s right. [laughter]

Jo: Thank you so much for being willing to talk to me. I mean, really, it just means so much. And if it’s ok before we start the interview… can I just tell you just for a few minutes… how much you and Leave it to Beaver the show, mean to me…. Because I’d love to share that with you.

Jerry: Sure, yup. You don’t want that to go to my head though, do you?

Jo: Yes, I do! And it’s all true. And that’s the thing. It’s like… and I don’t want to cry… I’m already really nervous…

Jerry: Then we have to stop for a second.

Jo: Ok, ok.

Jerry: I want you take a deep breath and relax. Everything is fine.

Jo: Yeah. [laughs] You’re so nice. I mean you really are such a nice guy. And you know I follow the show – I’ve been watching it ever since I was little, and I’ve never stopped watching it.

Jerry: Well, thank you.

Jo: It’s true. Wendy, my partner and I watch it all the time. We’re very keen on it, and adore you as an actor and we talk about it quite often. We even share our thoughts about the subtleties and rare qualities of the show with our friends. Um, so it’s kinda surreal to actually be talking to you. But I’m going to take my deep breath and then I’m just going to tell you what YOU mean to me and then I’ll ask you some questions. Talking to you is incredibly meaningful to me because you are one of my favorite people and you brought to life one of the most beloved television characters of all time. I mean Beaver is just the most lovable little guy. And not just because the television show is incredibly special and nuanced and brilliantly executed. It’s a transcendent meditation on the magic of childhood. And there’s an overwhelming warmth and kindness that you as the character of Beaver, and also Jerry Mathers exhibit, which I’m seeing right here on the phone. You both possess this genuine kindness. And talking to you is literally like a dream come true.

Jerry: Well thank you, thank you. And I just wanted to tell you that you’re very nice. Thank you so very much.

Jo: You’re welcome, I mean that from my heart. And the other thing I wanted to tell you is that I know you’re very passionate and active about diabetes awareness and I suffer from a severe form of Small Fiber Neuropathy. And at times the symptoms are really debilitating and when it’s at it’s worse, the only thing that helps me is putting on Leave it to Beaver. It’s my happy place.

Jerry: Awww, well thank you.

Jo: It’s like medicine, like a lullaby. And I’m really grateful to you for giving me that gift.

Jerry: You know, it’s a diversion. Honestly, I’ve heard that from a lot of people. That a lot of people who have troubles in their lives, they’ll say ‘you know the day was bad’ or whatever was happening in their lives, they’ll watch Leave it to Beaver and it takes me in that half hour to another spot, another place. And after they finish watching that half hour they’ll realize the world is a good place.

Jo: There’s something about the show that does that. Leave it to Beaver is (pause) – there is something really, I think, calming. There’s something in the journey that Beaver takes, it never unsettles you or overturns your thoughts or dismays you. It’s always earnest yet not intense. It never makes you anxious. You just know that everything’s going to be alright at the end of the day because of Ward and June’s nurturing philosophy on life, and because of your great bond with Wally. It’s just a beautiful show.

Jerry: Yes, it’s the ideal American family.

Jo: It is.

Jerry: And in some ways, a lot of people feel that everyone else’s lives – especially people that don’t have the best of lives—would wish theirs was like that when theirs was terrible. It’s very much idealized. I mean, everybody has problems in their lives. But Leave it to Beaver is a way you can sit back and watch, maybe have a few chuckles. Beaver never does anything horrendous, but he’s always doing something. It’s just interesting that some people say “oh I wish my life had been like that” and you know everybody’s life – some are a lot worse than others—but everybody’s life has good moments and bad moments.

Jo: Right, and that’s what’s so special about the show because it takes you there. So, you’ve kind of brought up some things that I’ve built into some of the questions. Is it ok if a few of the questions have a bit of a setup so that they’re in context and they make sense?

Jerry: Oh, I don’t know, you’ll have to ask [laughs]

Jo: You’ll tell me if I’m too long-winded.

Jerry: Guess what, you can ask my wife. I’m not very bashful so you don’t have to worry about that.

Jo: Ok, cool. That sounds good. So I’m going to start asking you stuff. When you first stepped into the role of Beaver, what was the process of developing his character like? How did the writers and directors of the show introduce you to that lovable, curious, tenacious little guy? What was the process?

Jerry: Well, to be honest with you, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but there was no real process. [both laugh]

Jo: No?, well that answers my question.

Jerry: Well, yeah [laughs]. I’d been an actor since I was 2 years old. So I knew what it was like learning lines. I mean I started on live TV when I was 2. I did movies, I did a lot of other television shows. And the funny part is they were all live at that time. There was no videotape, and so everything was live so there are no actual recordings of them. And I did a lot of movies. So it wasn’t like doing Leave it to Beaver was a new experience where I walked in and somebody said you have to know all these lines and everything. And the people were very very nice. And I’ll tell you a little secret, it’s not easy—and I’ve been a director, I’m a member of the Director’s Guild—the one thing about working with kids you can’t make a child work.

If they’re not a happy person it shows and they just won’t want to do the show. On the show I probably was a little slow, but it wasn’t like people saying ‘oh you have to do this,’ it was just fun. I loved going to the studio. There was a cast and crew—it wasn’t just June and Ward there—there were about 100 people on the set. Most of the people on the set—and to be honest it was mostly men because they were grips, lighting people, and camera. And they all had families at home. And so we did all sorts of fun things. It was not a family but it was kind of like a family in that we saw the same people. You know I knew their lives, if something bad happened or something good happened like birthdays we’d bring in a cake and we’d sing Happy Birthday to a camera man or a lighting guy or a grip. So it was a very fun time. We shot for 39 weeks and you know it was a hectic schedule. On Monday we’d go in and we’d read the script with the writers. They’d send it out late Friday night. Saturday my mother would read it to me a couple times. Sunday she would. And then on Monday they’d go in, and in the beginning when I was like 6-7 they would have someone else read my part. And after a couple years I’d read my own lines. And then Tuesday we’d go in and block it all out on the set. They’d say ‘ok we’re going to do this shot and this shot and Jerry you move here and stand there, you’ll say this…’ you know. And the next 3 days we’d shoot, and then we’d go back and start again the next Monday.

Jo: Right, so by that time… you were already a pro since you had done the Pet Milk commercials at 2, and like you said the live television, Lux Theatre, Matinee Theatre etc.

Jerry: That was the thing that really broke me in and that’s why I worked so much. Because when you’re doing live television you can’t have a child that forgets his lines because those are in front of live audiences. Leave it to Beaver was just the cast and crew were all my friends. If you had a child that went out in front of all these people and was distracted, you know, the show had to go on. It was fun. I loved going to the set every day and all those people were my friends and we just had a very good time.

Jo: Well, you seem like a natural so you really stepped into a role that’s your perfect self. Let me go onto the next question. You make Beaver seem so unselfconscious and that goes to what you were just saying. There’s something so natural about your performance. You’re also naturally funny. I can watch the same episodes over and over and I still laugh Jerry. I laugh all the time because you’re so amusing.

Jerry: Oh, thank you.

Jo: And the comedy wasn’t like punchline funny. It happened in the way the cast interacted with the situations and the storylines were relatable and Rusty Stevens as Larry Mondello and you are brilliantly hilarious, and the two of you together are like a little comedy team. I’ve heard this but I’m not sure it’s accurate, were you and Tony Dow allowed to come up with ideas for the shenanigans on the shows. Or did you and the other actors… essentially were you allowed to improvise any of that stuff at all?

Jerry: To be honest with you, no. If we said something like in rehearsals or reading the script by mistake they might say ‘oh that sounds a little bit better maybe that’s the way a kid would really say it.’ But for the most part, I had done live TV all my life where you have to go out and say it exactly and you don’t get a second chance. And Leave it to Beaver was on film, so if you make a mistake and they don’t find that it’s as good as they wanted and they think the way they wrote it was better, they said ‘cut’ and you went back and did it again. So pretty much it was right what they wrote. There wasn’t any kind of improvisation. Now sometimes at the end of a scene they might say ‘well do something here, say goodbye, whatever.’ But for the most part we did each scene, and did it several times because it was on film and not live TV. So they would shoot it, and then you’d do close ups and still shots over the shoulders. And so you were doing it over and over again. And each time they heard it they’d say ‘maybe do it more like you did the last time’ or ‘change this’ sometimes they’d even want 2 or 3 different ways of doing it so they’d have a choice.

Jo: Well It comes across like you might have improvised. To me it seems like it was just you – it just seems so natural and sincere.

Jerry: Yes, that’s what being an actor is making it natural and having people believe, so they can get into the story and feel like it’s really something that they’re watching as if you’re across the room from them and not just on a screen.

Jo: Well I don’t think anyone else could’ve played Beaver. I just think that that role was yours alone.

Jerry: Well, thank you but there’s a lot of talented actors. But yes, and it’s a very easy role to play because it was me playing a little boy, which is exactly what I was. Beaver is not really like me in some ways, but in other ways he’s very much like me and every other boy in the United States. And actually Leave it to Beaver plays in like 40-50 languages all over the world. The funny part is like in Japan, they have a little girl dub my voice. So not only is it in Japanese, but I have this real high voice. Basically I know it’s a girl’s voice, but you’d think boy that’s a high voice when I’m 14. [laughs]

Jo: [laughs] That is hilarious… Well, so, Beaver was a very kind and loyal brother, son, and friend.

Jerry: I agree.

Jo: And it was never the thing he did or didn’t do that got him into hot water, it was always just not fessing up to it from the beginning. And when he was faced with the truth, it made him grow a little wiser. Was Jerry Mathers the kid that we just talked about, was he also a precocious kid? Do you have a funny story about getting into the soup as it were?

Jerry: You know, probably not. I had a real normal childhood in some ways. Obviously it wasn’t normal as everyone else’s who was going to school every day, going to class. But my Dad was the ideal person because he was a principal and vice principal then, so he was dealing with a lot of kids. So it wasn’t like my parents were studio parents. You know, I just had to go every day. It wasn’t like if I didn’t work the family wouldn’t eat as he was fully employed. I loved going to the studio. I had a crew—I didn’t have a crew, we had a crew—of 80-90 people. Most of them were the grips and make up people and hairdressers, and the women and men there had families at home. In fact they kind of looked for that kind of person to hire them for the show. So they all were very much family-oriented people, and they made it fun for me. We would do things when we weren’t filming. The grips would help me build things with wood and people would do this and that, and we just had a really good time because they wanted me to be happy there. It was a long day. I worked every day, Monday through Friday, 8 in the morning until 5 at night. And I had to go to 3 hours of school with a private tutor. But, you know it was really fun to do that. It was something I really enjoyed doing. I had to know my lines, but that would maybe be like you preparing for a spelling test or something like that. It was something I was very used to. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard for me. The lines weren’t that difficult. And so it was just a fun time. I’d go there, we’d rehearse for 2 days and shoot for 3 and there were always fun scripts. And everybody made it fun.

Jo: That’s really wonderful to hear… Talking about the crew and the cast and everything, there were so many wonderful character actors who appeared on Leave it to Beaver in a lot of my favorite episodes, too. Like Lillian Bronson, Edgar Buchanan, Madge Kennedy as Aunt Martha, Burt Mustin, and Dorothy Adams, William Schallert, Doris Packer as Cornelia Rayburn. Do you have any interesting memories about the guest actors on the show? Did you have any experiences with them that might be memorable?

Jerry: Ah, you know, I did but honestly they weren’t memorable. They were just very nice people. It would be kind of like saying “remember when you were grammar school and you had a really nice teacher?” I have memories of them, but nothing that really is so different about them. We had a great time on the show. They looked for people pretty much that were not in love with themselves, they were looking for people who come onto the set and get along with everybody. When they did the casting they were looking for those kind of people that weren’t you know the typical actor. So they were all great people. Everybody got along. We all really liked each other. When Burt Mustin played Gus the fireman it was always fun because he was a really nice guy and had a lot of great stories. He had been an actor for only a few years and he had done other things all his life. And you know everyone on the set had kids so they knew how to deal with children and everyone made it a fun place to go.

Jo: (Burt Mustin is the Ubiquitous man who pops up in television shows everywhere!) So it seems like they really focused on trying to make this a very warm atmosphere for you, and like you said fun.

Jerry: It was very family-oriented. We all had families. When somebody had something happen, when someone’s children were sick or something more drastic happened, everybody knew. They were all friends of mine. It wasn’t like they were my family. It was maybe like relationships you had with teachers and educators, you knew them. I knew that this person had a kid and maybe one day that person would have to go because someone was graduating or whatever. So we didn’t really know their families, but we knew that they all were family people.

Jo: One of my favorite episodes is when Beaver and Wally weren’t allowed to see Blood River and Voodoo Curse. (while June was vehemently against Beaver going to those horror pictures, Ward tried to make the case that he has a subscription to Weird Tales Magazine as a boy.) The 1950s was filled with a lot of memorable science fiction and monster movies and I’m one of those fans. I was called Monstergirl when I was little. They used to pick on me, now I wear it as a badge of honor. Did you used to go see films like that as a child? That’ must have been like the greatest decade to be a kid, the 1950s, to go see the great sci fi and horror movies premier in theaters. Were there any particular movies of those genres that left an impression on you?

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, 1957-63, Jerry Mathers, 1960

Jerry: Well, I’ll tell you kind of an interesting story. Because our show was really a show that a lot of people wanted to work on, because it had children in it and they would go home early, a lot earlier than some of the shows that didn’t have kids where they could work until late at night, we had some of the top people in every union. Our makeup man was a man named Bob Dawn. And Bob Dawn at Universal was the top make up man for all the effects. They got him because when we first started there was one where I had a black eye or something, but anyway, because we were a show with kids we all went home early, but he did all the monster movie masks. He had his own lab up above the makeup department. It was this huge room where anything that was any kind of an effect, if someone was going to be shot or anything like that, he was the one who did it. And I’d go up there and he would show me, like when they did the reboot of Creature from the Black Lagoon I got to see how all that was done.

{Robert Dawn — was part of Universal Studio’s make up department -he worked on such films as Destry (1954), Around the World in 80s Days (1956), Funny Face (1957), Psycho (1960) Marnie (1964), Panic in the City 1968, The Missouri Breaks 1976, Damien: The Omen II (1978), Christine (1983)…And television shows -Mike Hammer 1958-59, M Squad 1959, General Electric Theater 1958-60, Checkmate 1960-61, Boris Karloff’s Thriller 1960-61, Laramie 1959-61, 87th Precinct 1961, Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1957-62, Alfred Hitchcock Hour 1963, Kraft Suspense Theatre 1963, Wagon Train 1957-63, Star Trek 1966.}

Jo: Oh, that must have been the coolest. The Creature is one of my favorites!… That must have been the best!

Jerry: The reason they hired him was he was so good at it. One of the episodes was the haircut episode and they really couldn’t cut my hair because we had to go back the next week and film. They didn’t show the shows necessarily in the order we filmed them. So he made what they call a skull cap for me, and then he pasted the hair on it. So my hair was the same. The show was so much fun for him because we didn’t work the long hours like some of the other shows. Although he was a top person in the field he came on our show and we were very lucky to have him.

Jo: oh, that’s such a great story! Did he give you the black eye that Violet Rutherford gave you? [laughs]

Jerry: [laughs] Anything that was make up, he would do. There were hairdressers but he was the makeup man.

Jo: Wow, that’s wonderful. I would’ve been in his lab all the time. [laughs]

Jerry: Actually when he did the movie Psycho I got to help him on some of the different effects because I’d go up to… he would come to our show most of the time but when they needed something like for Psycho, he would come and go up to the lab and he would take off a few weeks. Little boys love things like this… they got a skull. One that had been, well, not donated, I don’t know how they got it. But he had to age it for Psycho and I got to go up to the lab with him and he would show me how he put make up on it to make it look old. But he was always going out and working like a second job up in the lab to build things. The lab was really interesting because like all around it they had the masks from like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and all the monster movies. And Universal was one of the big ones for doing monster movies. The monsters they made were all over the lab as part of the work that they’d done.

Jo: (You saw Norman Bates’ mother’s corpse!) That’s amazing. I mean, again, I would be up there all the time.

Jerry: [laughs] Yeah, I’m sure I bothered him a lot. Honestly, I wasn’t up there that much, but it was fun every once in a while he’d say “you want to come up and look, I’m going to do this today…” And I had to go up there like the time I got my haircut to make a bald cap or when I was supposed to get a black eye from Violet Rutherford I’d go up there and try the makeup on. So I was up there working, well, not working and it was just a fun place to go.

Jo: You’ve said Beaver is an “everyman” – I’ve heard you refer to him as an “everyman” which is true. Or as I call him now, an “everykid”. And he’s always faced with choices that he had to deal with and then he had to face the consequences. And he was usually led astray by Larry Mondello or Eddie Haskell. Usually Wally came to the rescue. Do you think that Wally – that while Beaver is the “everyman”/ “everykid” that Wally is like the philosopher? The subtle thinker of the show whose sort of your guide through the maze of troubles you got yourself into?

Jerry: I would say that’s a fair estimate, and I would say that’s always true. People, most children, have someone that’s a guide for them, maybe an older brother or sister. Maybe a parent or a relative. But everyone has someone they kind of come to and talk about things to and get words of wisdom when they need them. Or it may even be a friend of theirs. Some people have just really good friends who will help them along the way. We’re all not autonomous beings. We need companionship and talking things over with people and getting different opinions, a lot of times will enlighten you a whole lot.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers, 1957-1963.

Jo: Right… And Wally was good at being that companion to you.

Jerry: Yes, very definitely.

Jo: Now instead of viewing the show as being just sentimental. I see Beaver as being a very thought-provoking and innovative representation of the idealized American family, which we were talking about. But there was something very progressive about the way Ward and June co-parented. Even when June was like cleaning the house in pearls and high heels, she was still equal partners in raising you two. And they were not infallible either. They weren’t like perfect which was really interesting. Hugh Beaumont was brilliant as he navigated his mistakes whenever he realized he he had made mistakes. And I love the awareness that they both had as parents at the end of each episode. And to me that’s pretty ground breaking for a show that’s symbolizing the 1950s family. How would you describe the show’s enduring legacy?

Jerry: I’m just going to tell you, do you know why she always wore pearls?

Jo: No, why, tell me.

Jerry: Well, because she was a very very skinny New York model and when they lit her—we shot on 35mm film like a movie—the 2 muscles in her neck, with the lights on her, it looked like she had a huge shadow and it looked like a huge scar. So by putting the pearls across that, you didn’t notice that. That’s why. It wasn’t that they wanted her to be this fashion model that was cleaning the house. It was for technical reasons.

Jo: Isn’t that interesting! You know the stories behind the scenes, when people just assume right, that she is just trying to represent this fifties housewife that must dress to the nines even when she’s dusting and mopping.

Jerry: Right, that wasn’t it. As I said, it was all so they could light—it was a lot easier. They could’ve lit it but it was very hard to do because then they would’ve had to have a special beam and when she moved. So they made the pearls so they cut right across that part of her neck so you never even noticed it.

Jo: Well it worked anyway because she was always so lovely.

Jerry: She was such a wonderful woman.

Jo: She just, I mean, both Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont, they just… there is such a genuine warmth that comes off from them, from the whole family, you know?

Jerry: And do you know about Hugh Beaumont?

Jo: Well, I know he was a minister, right?

Jerry: He was a Methodist minister, and actually he only started his acting career, and this was long before Leave it to Beaver. But he was at a very very poor congregation and basically dealt with a lot of alcoholics down on skid row, where they obviously couldn’t afford a minister. And because of that he needed a second job where he could work and still do his ministry. So he became an actor. And the funny part was what he was before Leave it to Beaver was Michael Shayne. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these—it wasn’t a B movie, they were shorts they showed before the movie before people had television. And Michael Shayne was this really rough detective that takes people and grabs them by the collar and gets aggressive and violent, kind of roughing them up a bit. It was nothing like Hugh Beaumont and here he is a Methodist minister. So when he got into Leave it to Beaver, I think it was much more how he wanted to be presented. It was much more like the real Hugh Beaumont.

Jo: Right, the compassionate, thoughtful man.

Jerry: Right, well if you saw Michael Shayne he was none of those things.

{We talked a bit about what a wonderfully humanitarian and gentle man Hugh Beaumont was. He was a very busy actor in the day and quite the opposite from some of his grittier crime dramas, film noir, science fiction personas.

Mike Shayne is a fictional private detective character created during the late 1930s by writer Brett Halliday, a pseudonym of Davis Dresser. The character appeared in a series of seven films starring Lloyd Nolan for Twentieth Century Fox, five films from the low-budget Producers Releasing Corporation with Hugh Beaumont.At that point, Hugh Beaumont took over the role in five films released in 1946…Larceny in Her Heart 1946, Blonde for a Day 1946, Murder is My Business 1946
Three on a Ticket 1947, Too Many Winners 1947.} Beaumont also appeared in several sci-fi, horror and film noir The Fallen Sparrow (1943), Val Lewton’s and director Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim (1943) Blood on the Sun (1945), Apology for Murder (1945), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Railroaded! (1947), Bury Me Dead (1947), Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), Night Without Sleep (1952), Racket Squad tv series 1952-53, The Mole People (1956), The Human Duplicators (1965)

Jo: Well I’ll have to hunt that down. There’s a lot of things I want to see. Like I want to see the commercial you did when you’re in the 10 gallon hat, you know the Pet Milk commercial. You know, I don’t know how you get access to them, if the studios don’t release them.

Jerry: I did all sorts of things – that’s what people don’t understand—before I did Leave it to Beaver, I did movies, of course the Hitchcock movies, the Bob Hope movies, those are all still around. But I was working on live TV and the only copies they had of them… a lot of times they would make a copy so they could send it to NY so that people across the country could see the commercials they had bought were shown. But nobody thought to save those things. You know after they’d come and say “yes, not this played in Los Angeles, this played in Denver, this played in New York, and here’s your commercial,” and yes it did show, and they’d show the call letters for the station it was on, then they just threw it away. Whoever thought they’d want to see it again?

Jo: That’s just a shame. Because I would love to see you pound the bar in your diaper, ten gallon hat and six shooter saying “I want my brand.” [laughs]

Jerry: Yup, I’m the toughest hombre… [laughs]

Jo: Speaking of the films you did, and I do know all the work that you’ve done.

Jerry: Uh oh!

Jo: [laughs] I know everything you did, Jerry!

Jerry: I was having so much fun. Just having a good time. [laughs]

Jo: Well you started out working in commercials, when television was in it’s infancy and so you were doing a lot of variety shows and live dramatic television roles in Lux Theatre, Matinee Theatre, General Electric Theater, Alcoa Theater to name a few. You were a very busy working child actor. And then you did a lot of major motion pictures like This Is My Life (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), That Certain Feeling (1956) and The Deep Six (1958) and worked with some of the best actors —Linda Darnell, Dan Duryea, Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Dunnock, Barbara Rush, George Sanders, Bob Hope and Alan Ladd…

… Did you have any favorite experiences on any particular movie or early live television show outside of Leave it to Beaver? Is there an actor that you had a great experience with or a film you liked to work on the most?

Jerry: You know what, that’s a very very hard question because all of them were so much fun and I had such a good time doing them. Honestly when I think of all the things you’ve talked about and just going off the top of my head– one of the things about working with a child is you have to keep them happy because unlike an adult actor who you can sue, that doesn’t bother a kid. So everybody treats you really nice, and they have a welfare worker there. They go out of their way to make sure that you’re having a good time and that you’ll do the lines in the right way and you don’t want to say “no I’m tired. I don’t want to do this” or whatever. So I just had a great time working and all the people on the set and a lot of them had families at home so they were used to dealing with kids and working with kids. It was just a very very fun time in my life. And I hate to say this I was a little spoiled because I was the only one there and I got to do a lot of fun things that other kids never have the opportunity to do.

Jo: And it’s so special to think about some of the big movies you appeared in and worked with the actors that you did, it sounds like the best of both worlds. You know, you get to be a kid at home and have a normal life with all these people that are making it fun for you and you’re doing what you love to do. I mean, that’s the ultimate, right?

Jerry: Absolutely. And you know, I didn’t even know then. I do now, but at the time how many actors can say that they worked with Hitchcock, and that I’d sit there, sometimes even on his lap and he would run my lines with me. Or I worked with Bob Hope. Bob Hope saved my life. I did a couple movies with him, but one movie The Seven Little Foys, they put too much gasoline on the curtains and they caught fire and I was up on like a balcony or actually a catwalk is what they’re called—it’s where the lights are. I was supposed to be there as a part of the show and a stuntman was supposed to come up and get me, but they put too much gasoline on it, the stuntman couldn’t do it, and Bob Hope actually saved my life. Things like that would happen to me, and all the great people I was able to work with and know that I got to know as an actor, that a lot of people just hear about. A lot of them were my friends and people I knew as just regular folks who were my friends.

Jo: That’s an amazing story. And you’ve done some impressive work.

Jerry: Thank you.

Jo: And by the way, you do the best impersonation of Hitch [laughs] because this enigmatic master, director and story teller did seem to take a shine to you. Like calling you Mr. Mathers and I saw you do the impersonation of him and it was really really good.

Jerry: Yes, he did, and you know it was just so easy because everybody called him, you know, Mr. Hitchcock, and he said “I always call actors Mr., so you will be Mr. Mathers.” And to me that was my dad, but he wanted to do that and he was the boss.

Jo: He’s a bit imposing. You know, he’s a big guy, arresting and he just comes across as imposing. And for some reason it just seemed like he really liked YOU.

Jerry: Well, you know, he had daughters, but I do think that was part of his persona. And he was, it wasn’t like I could just run wild or whatever. He just, as long as I did what I was told. He had certain ways he wanted the lines to be said. I couldn’t, like another actor go over and just read them, so a lot of times he would read me with the inflections and things in, and I was very good at that. I could listen to what he said, you know “raise your voice here…” “this one you’re a little afraid…” whatever. I could do that. So it worked out very very well. He’s like the ideal voice coach.

Jo: And of course that’s why he’s such a great director…

Jerry: But you know he didn’t do that for the other actors. They were supposed to come in and do it for themselves, but for me he always did that. He had done it for other children, too, not just for me. And the other thing is when I worked with him we were not on a set where you go to a studio. We went to Vermont. So we were like a lot maybe closer because we weren’t at home we were at a foreign place. And it was really a fun trip. To see the changing of the leaves in Vermont.

Jo: And The Trouble with Harry is such a fun film, just watching you noodle around the green hills is pretty hilarious. It’s so cute. I mean, you’re just adorable. Are there any of his films as an adult now in retrospect… are there any of Hitch’s films that’s a favorite of yours?

Jerry: Yeah, I like them all. And the nice part was he was doing Alfred Hitchcock Presents which is also done by Universal. While I was doing Leave it to Beaver, his limo would drive by and he’d be in the back and he’d slow down and talk to me and say “how’s everything going.” And so I’d see him in the cafeteria. I was a child and he was an adult, so I’d wave at him. He’d always say hi to me so it wasn’t like he was my best friend, but he was somebody I knew at the studio. You know everybody else, honestly, was kind of afraid of him. [laughter] I don’t know why, I’d just go up to him and he’d go “hi Jerry how are you doing today” “I’m doing fine, I’m doing this…” So it was not a relationship I think he had with a lot of other actors. I just wasn’t afraid of him and other people were very afraid of him.

Jo: And face it, you were just really adorable. You’re still adorable.

Jerry: Ahhh, I have you fooled. [laughter]

Jo: [laughter] You are, you are. You don’t have me fooled {laughter}… So the last thing I wanted to ask you was in 2007 you made your Broadway debut in the starring role as Wilbur Turnblatt in Hairspray, Tony Award winning Best Musical and I was living in the Midwest at the time, so I didn’t get a chance to come and see your performance. I’m from New York originally and came back to live in the NYC area after living in the Midwest for 8 years, during that time, that’s when you go to New York and appear in a Broadway show, ironic… [laughs]

Jerry: Well actually before I did that I had toured for probably 3 years all over the Midwest doing Dinner Theatre. It wasn’t like I was either a TV actor and movie actor, I’ve done quite a bit of live audience performance even though I was just a film actor. I did a lot of things in front of a live audience.

Jo: That’s what I was going to ask you. How did you enjoy working on Broadway and in theatre.

Jerry: That’s like the pinnacle. That’s the whole thing. I had done plays. Tony Dow and I did a play that wasn’t likened to Leave it to Beaver but we capitalized on that obviously, with me being the Beaver. But I had toured with a play called So Long Stanley written by Bob Schiller of Jerry Lewis, and with Bob Weiskopf who wrote for– All in the Family, and they were the head writers for that. So I played the Jerry Lewis part. So I had done, Tony and I toured for almost a year with that play all over the country and I’ve done a lot of stage work. People don’t know about it because it’s not like TV. I mean we were in Kansas City or Chicago, but not really on Broadway. I was on Broadway when I did Hairspray on Broadway. But I had done theatre before so it really wasn’t that scary.

Jo: And it must have been… as you said it wasn’t that much different, an extension basically of what you’ve done before.

Jerry: And it’s all acting basically. I mean, you learn a line. Actually working on a series is tougher because the lines are different every week, you know. On Friday night you go home and maybe Saturday morning a script comes. Monday you’re rehearsing Leave it to Beaver, Tuesday we blocked it, and the next 3 days you had to know those lines to shoot it. The lines are not something you can just make up. They all have to be said exactly as they were written. So doing theatre, you make a mistake, other people jump in to help you get yourself out of it. When you’re doing TV it’s a little different.

Jo: Yeah, it’s definitely a different venue and a whole different process. What are you working on now? I perform too. I used to perform before I got sick so I know that a live performance is much different than going into the studio where you’re able to re-record if something doesn’t go right. So that whole live experience is different.

Jerry: And you get into kind of what they call a zone where you think “oh yeah, I can do this, I did it yesterday.” Where when you’re doing something different every half hour, you do a scene, you do the closeups and they’re different, you do 2 shots of whatever and then move onto the next scene. You’re taping over and over you can get into a zone like “oh I know what I’m doing” and all of a sudden you forget a line or somebody else forgets a line, or the set isn’t there, or something goes wrong, then you’re like wait a minute, what am I doing here.

Jo: But the audience is usually pretty forgiving because its such an organic experience.

Jerry: Well, for the most part they don’t even notice it. And you’ve got other actors and everyone else wants you to look good and you want them to look good. They make a mistake and you all cover for each other and there’s always ways you can get around it. And all of a sudden you’ll be sitting there and maybe—I did one play, Tony Dow and I did a play that toured for a year. So we did basically 8 or 9 shows a week of the same thing and it’s very repetitious. So you get to the point where your mind might wander a little bit and all of a sudden you’re like “wait a minute, where am I?” I’ve got this line, this is this scene, I know I’ve got… And then other people jump in and help. And they do the same thing because everybody does it. So you’ll jump in and cover for them.

Jo: So what are you working on now? Tell me some of the current projects that you might be working on.

Jerry: You know what, I hate to tell you, but I do personal appearances. I do autograph shows. I’m pretty much, honestly, typecast. So a lot of times people will call up and want me to do things like the Beaver but that’s kind of hard for a man of my age to act like an 8 year old boy.

Jo: Not in public anyway [laughs]

Jerry: Well, I do go out, I am a diabetic and I control it through diet and exercise. So I go out and talk about that. But honestly it’s a little bit like fishing. I’ll talk about being an actor since I was 2 years old, and working with Bob Hope and all that stuff, and Leave it to Beaver. And how I put on a lot of weight when I finished the New Leave it to Beaver I bought a catering company. So I’d be going around selling food to producers and they’d ask “you know we’re going to hire you for 40 days for a crew of 110 people. Do you have enough meals so you won’t serve us a hamburger every day?” And so I’d bring a selection of food and I’d eat it, so I put on a lot of weight. And my doctor said “you can’t put on that kind of weight and still be healthy.” I said “I feel great, I’ve got this great company.” And sure enough—she’s actually a female doctor, a good friend of the family, and she gave me a free physical for Christmas. So I went in and she said “you’ve got diabetes and if you don’t do anything about it you’re going to be in serious trouble.” So that’s how I actually found out I had it. And I lost the weight and now I am and will always be pre-diabetic. So I just have to watch my weight, exercise, you know life is too good to cut it short just because you want to eat too much.

Jo: Right! That’s true. And the neuropathy is not fun, you know that well.

Jerry: Yes.

Jo: So trying to keep the diabetes in check. And eating right is just good in general, taking care of your health like you said life is too good to not take care of yourself…

Jerry: And I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I thought oh look at this, this is what I’ve waited for all my life. I can have an extra steak, oh more fries, sure! More deserts, we have 4 deserts and today I’ll try all 4.

Jo: Well you have to taste them, if it’s your business you have to taste it to make sure it’s ok.

Jerry: Yeah, if you bring food in and say “yeah eat this” well why aren’t you eating it?

Jo: When you were talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s television show, and seeing the director on the Universal lot, I forgot to mention that as a fan of his anthology television series, I noticed that the studio must have shared the sets for Leave it To Beaver and Hitch’s
show. One of the really interesting things I noticed is that some of the same music scores for Beaver in lighthearted whimsical episodes, pops up in Hitchcock’s dark and droll crime series quite often I imagine they shared the stock music by the great Pete Rugolo — It’s a funny contrast to hear the same musical motif on Leave it to Beaver and then in the middle of a murder mystery!!!

Jerry: Yes, it is quite ironic about some of the music in the Hitchcock television shows being the same as the Leave it to Beaver episodes. Something that is also quite interesting is that many of Hitch’s intros to his shows that he did on camera were shot in the entry way of the Leave It to Beaver house. You can see the prints of the Blue Boy and Pinkie paintings in the background that were also seen on our show!

Jo: We talked about Hugh Beaumont a bit but didn’t get to talk about Barbara Billingsley. I read that she was a mentor to you. Was she very maternal with you on the set of the show and did she share acting advice with you?

Jerry: Barbara was a very nice person and yes, she was a respected mentor. My mother was always with me on the set and I knew that Barbara was a trusted colleague who I very much enjoyed working with. I was lucky to be able to continue to have a relationship with her even after the show.  When we filmed the New Leave it to Beaver series, I was fortunate to spend several years with her as an adult and we developed a very warm friendship. Barbara was a lifelong treasure that I will always remember.

Jo: I wanted to ask you what your favorite episodes are, and I’m sure you’ve answered it a gazillion times before. So I’ll frame it this way–Is there one episode that is the quintessential episode of the show for you?

Jerry: My favorite episodes were when we got to go to Friend’s Lake on the Universal backlot which was an exciting adventure for me.  The lake was actually quite large, and it was filled with Bluegill fish which were there for mosquito abatement.  Tony and I and some of the other cast members were allowed to go fishing on our lunch break for the fish which we caught and released.  That was always a thrill and a lot of fun for me, especially to see who caught the biggest Bluegill that day!

Beaver- “A lot of the fun of fishin’ isn’t fishin’ its sit-in’ around with the other guys sayin’ nothin’…”
Ward- ”Well that’s one way of looking at it Beaver”
Beaver- “Yeah and you know dad, if I’m gonna sit around and say nothin’ well I’d rather do it with guys like you and Wally”

Jo: You’re just so gracious with your fans — I hope I’ve asked you—some good questions and that it was fun for you. Well thank you from my heart, Jerry, thank you so very much. You really are an American icon.

Jerry: It’s been great talking with you!






“In the Soup” Whitey dares Beaver to climb up into a soup bowl billboard to prove that there is real soup giving off steam. It was the most expensive episode, costing $50,000 to film.






Talking with Jerry Mathers was incredibly meaningful to me because he is one of my favorite characters from classic television, and I adore Leave It to Beaver so profoundly. Not only is Jerry Mathers one of the nicest guys you’ll ever get to talk to, but he also brought to life one of the most beloved and memorable symbols of childhood for me. Jerry Mathers’ / Beaver’s facial expressions and body language are pure perfection, so genuine and unselfconscious, he is very very real for me. And Leave it to Beaver just takes me to a ‘happy place’.

Aside from a television icon, one of the most recognized faces everywhere, and aside from the nostalgia that Jerry Mathers and the show evokes, Leave it to Beaver is incredibly special because of so many of the qualities I have tried to point out. How it is so carefully nuanced and brilliantly executed, with thoughtful writing and acting (by the entire cast and guest appearances by wonderful character actors). The character development, the careful framing of the scenes and filming, directing, and even the music used within each episode’s storyline, all work to underscore the adventures and misadventures and the wonder of just being a kid.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Jerry Mathers, Barbara Billingsley, Tony Dow, 1957-63

The show is a transcendent meditation on the fascination of growing up in a happy world. Perhaps it doesn’t represent all of our individual memories as children, but what it does successfully fulfill is that wishful landscape in our heads where we want to go to feel safe and content.

And both Beaver and Jerry Mathers possess warmth and kindness and talking to him was literally a dream come true for me. He’s like an old friend that has been with me for a long time, and there is no one –absolutely no one else– who could have personified the lovable character of Beaver. That role is his alone!

Please explore Jerry Mather’s official website there’s so much there to enjoy besides his blog, books, gallery, and upcoming events! http://www.jerrymathers.com/

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying it’s been quite a nostalgic dream come true to chat with Jerry Mathers whose been like a treasured old friend of mine…

I also want to dedicate this Jerry Mathers tribute to Jerry’s mom Marilyn for encouraging him to pursue his acting career and allowing her son to share his wonderful talent with all of us…

And Thank you, Jerry Mathers, for spending a little time just “messing around” with me!

There’s a little bit of Mayfield in all of us, and in Mayfield, there’s always– “love, understanding, and a lot of good stuff in the ice box!”

10 thoughts on “A Conversation with Television Icon 📺 Jerry Mathers

  1. An amazing interview! Jerry Mathers sounds like a truly decent person. And you had some great questions, Jo, things that I would’ve wanted to know.

    That’s a great story about Bob Hope saving wee Jerry from the fire. A person reads some unkind things about Hope, so I was glad to see this story.

    I can’t imagine how gruelling it would be to film 39 TV episodes a year! Holey moley that would be a lot of work. However, I’d enjoy the perks, e.g. visiting the makeup man’s workshop…

    Thanks for sharing this interview with us. Nicely done!

    1. Hi Ruth, Jerry Mathers is a very gracious and kind person, and it was a highlight of my life to get to chat with him. I’ve been so impressed with his acting on the show for years, and I’m so glad I got to tell him how much it’s meant to me. So glad you enjoyed the interview! Thanks for the kind words!

  2. A great post; I especially enjoyed the interview with Jerry Mathers. His anecdotes are always interesting, informative, and entertaining. Well done!

  3. Hi Rick, So glad you enjoyed the interview. Jerry Mathers is quite funny and very interesting to listen to reminisce about those days in television and film. Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by!

  4. Wonderful post about my fave child actor! What a great interview you got to have with him. Jealous! I didn’t know he was also on the Big Screen. And now I’ll spend some time perusing the Drive In!

    1. Hi Mary! Thank you so much for your kind words. Jerry Mathers is just so special, I couldn’t go on enough about how brilliant I think he is in the role of Theodore Cleaver. I’m so happy to know there’ll be a new explorer at my humble blog. And I do hope you enjoy yourself perusing The Last Drive In. I’ve got lots of interesting stuff coming up in the future… Cheers Joey

  5. Thanks for covering the Beave and everything I adore about the show! Haircut episode is my favorite— 50 years later I’m still laughing!

    1. It was one of the greatest thrills of my life to talk to Jerry and talk about how amazing Leave it to Beaver in depth. The show is still so hilarious. I agree with you. I can watch the same scene over and over and still laugh too. That’s a testament to how timeless the series is! Thanks for the kind words… Cheers, Joey

  6. I love the story of how he got the job in his Boy Scouts uniform! What a great tribute to An American Icon! Did you know he was in an I Love Lucy, in an uncredited role?

  7. Hi! Actually Jerry pointed out to me that he was never in I Love Lucy and while there is an image floating around the internet that attributes it to a young Jerry Mathers it is in fact not him. I’ve been looking into getting the credit taken down from IMDb. So no… he was not in the show, but he certainly has enough to be proud of as it is! Thanks for stopping by ! Joey

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