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 coat tails. 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 and other 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 stunt man 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 sung 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) starring 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 afterwards, 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 watching each kid to 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’ which made television history by featuring the first toilet shown on TV. Beaver and Wally send away for 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 from their children. Most or 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 story line.” -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 hair cut like the one Beaver gave himself with the help of 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’ perspective.

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 navigates 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 boys 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 Wards 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 story lines. 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 the both studio’s 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 (Leaver 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 story lines in moments that invoked either the adventurous spirit, the curious imagination, or tap 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 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 set up 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, Wards 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 emphasis on cleanliness and the importance of good grooming habits, manners, your 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 it’s 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 story line 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 new found 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 it’s 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 sagely manner even teaches Beaver than 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 representation of masculinity by playing a whimpy 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, that 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 standard. 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 by 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 by gone 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’s 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, not throwing 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 club house, 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 nights’ 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!

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