Family matters: ‘Leave it to Beaver’ actors recall the series fondly

Jerry Mathers, 13, is shown in character as Beaver Cleaver in 1961.

Jerry Mathers, left, Frank Bank, Barbara Billingsley, Ken Osmond and Tony Dow of the classic television sitcom “Leave It To Beaver” reunited in 2007 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the show. This week, Shout Factory is releasing all six seasons of the original show on a 37-disc DVD set.

? Jerry Mathers doesn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression; he loved working as a child actor. But he didn’t like the audition process. So when it came time for one of his last interviews for the role of the irrepressible Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver on the beloved sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” he told the producers that he’d rather be at his first Cub Scout meeting.

The show’s creators and producers, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, were impressed that he wanted to be a real kid — in fact, Mathers says that was the clincher that got him hired.

“To be honest with you, they were looking for someone whose mother wasn’t pushing them,” says the 62-year-old Mathers. “I had my priorities. Being a child, it didn’t matter whether I worked. I wanted to do things that were fun.”

When “Leave It to Beaver” premiered in the fall of 1957, it was just one of many family-based sitcoms that peppered the TV landscape, among them “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” and “Father Knows Best.”

But none of them have remained in the public consciousness as long as “Beaver.” Oddly enough, the show’s ratings never cracked the top 25. But it has endured in rerun heaven since it left the air in 1963; the cast even reunited in the early 1980s for a TV movie and a new series.

This week, Shout Factory is releasing all six seasons of the original “Beaver” on a 37-disc DVD set. One disc is devoted to extras, including the original pilot that featured a different Ward and Wally, interviews with the cast and promos.

Created by Connelly and Mosher, the series revolved around the idyllic middle-class Cleaver family. Beaver, the youngest member of the Cleaver clan, was always getting into trouble. He idolized his big brother, Wally (Tony Dow) — “Gee, Wally” was the Beav’s most iconic expression — even if they often fought. (Connelly’s 8-year-old son Ricky and 14-year-old son Jay were the models for the Beav and Wally).

Wally’s best friends were goofy “Lumpy” Rutherford (Frank Bank) and the mischievous Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond), who would make Beav’s life a living hell but was always quick to be gratuitously polite to adults. (Who can forget Eddie’s unctuous “Hello, Mrs. Cleaver”?)

Barbara Billingsley played the well-coiffed and loving mother June, and Hugh Beaumont — who was actually a minister in real life — played their dad, Ward Cleaver, who would bring the boys into the den after they messed up and offer some wise life lessons.

“I think there are some unusual things about the show,” notes Arthur Smith, curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “What is the most striking characteristic is the way the show takes the point of view of the children. It’s really seen through their eyes, as opposed to the more traditional shows, where it was all about the parents dealing with the silly stuff the kids would get up to. I really think ‘Leave It to Beaver’ took an empathetic look at childhood. They kind of had a focus on very naturalistic, low-key kind of humor as opposed to stock comic situations.”

Child’s viewpoint

Classic episodes found the Beav getting stuck in a soup bowl on a billboard, Wally copying Eddie’s slick haircut and Eddie leaving home and staying in his own place, which wasn’t quite the palace he boasted about.

“All the episodes are from real life,” Mathers says. “Those things really happened to kids. Joe Connelly actually kept a diary when he was in his teens and wrote things down about what happened to him.”

Unlike today when shows are geared to certain demographic groups, says Mathers, “this was written for the whole family. When you were a child you can relate a lot more to the Beaver. When you are a teen, you can relate more to Wally and as an adult, June and Ward’s position seem a lot easier to understand.”

Dow was a championship diver when he got into show business. “A lifeguard at the pool I used to train at was an actor so he introduced me to the business,” says Dow, now 65.

He got a role in a pilot called “Johnny Wildlife” that didn’t sell. Then, “Leave It to Beaver” came along. Dow says he felt that Mathers was his brother. “Actually, when you are spending every day on the set with somebody, it is like being part of the family,” he says.

Worldwide audience

Today, all four men are still close. They occasionally make personal appearances, such as at a tribute last week at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills, Calif. Mathers still acts; Dow turned to directing and now is a sculptor.

“It’s a lifelong dedication that all four of us have together,” says Bank, 68. They all adore Billingsley, who is still alive. “She always says she has four boys and they are always Jerry, Tony, Kenny and I,” says Bank. (Years later, Billingsley famously popped up teaching jive in the 1980 comedy “Airplane!”)

“My favorite person in the world is Barbara,” says Osmond, 67, who became a Los Angeles policeman after the show ended and retired after he was shot in the line of duty.

Osmond says Eddie is more popular today than ever. “As a matter of fact, I just got my first fan letter from Poland,” he adds. “I have had them from all around the world.”