Leave it to Beaver first aired on October 4, 1957.
64 years later, it remains a beloved show.
‘The Beaver’ Jerry Mathers joined Libby Collins on this week’s episode of WTMJ Conversations to reflect on the show and its popularity.
A portion of the conversation was transcribed below, courtesy of eCourt Reporters, Inc.
LIBBY COLLINS: So, after movies, all of a sudden, television was getting bigger and bigger as the ’50s rolled on. How did you make that transition to TV?
JERRY MATHERS: Well, I actually started doing TV almost at the same time, and, you know, they looked around and usually — what people don’t know is that television really started a lot more on the East Coast in New York and they could go to the Broadway stage to get young actors. California didn’t really have any — they had some, I’m not saying they didn’t have any stage work, but they didn’t have what Broadway had, so they looked around and they thought, wait a minute, the models — and that’s what I was doing, I was going and, you know, just modeling clothes. A lady would hold your hand, you would walk out, and they would say, and this is our outfit for whatever, and then the people would go in and hopefully buy it for their children. So, they said, well, they’ve been working with people and in front of people, and most of the live shows had an audience. So, I just started doing that. Alfred Hitchcock was doing a commercial, because even those were live, for his last movie, saw me, I did start doing movies and all sorts of TV shows and from then on I was working all the time.
LIBBY COLLINS: One of your first TV roles was with Ozzie and Harriet.
JERRY MATHERS: Yes, I just — it was actually their Halloween show for that year, and I just came up, and, you know, they said go over and, you know, you’ll knock on, I think, this man’s door, he’s going to come to the door, he’ll start talking to people and just keep pulling on his coat and then he’ll give you candy.
So, that’s what I did, and I did it so well that the director liked me, and I started doing all sorts of movies and, you know, from then I was just working all the time.
And then in 1957, I went on an interview, they had about 2,000 kids, I believe, but it was in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and it wasn’t just for the part of the Beaver, it was Beaver and Wally and Eddie, so the whole cast. But the first time we went on it, my mom and I were going, you know, there’s every kid that’s — you know, in Hollywood, at this interview, and we just kept going back and back, and, you know, we kind of went, this is not getting boring, but, you know, what’s going to happen. What we didn’t realize is I’d already been picked for the part and now they were trying to find people that looked like friends and, of course, the Wally character. And so, it was a very long interview, it took about two months to get — actually know that I actually had the part. And then just do the pilot, which is, you know, ones that they do when they showed it, and it was very popular. And from then on, we did the series for the next six years.
LIBBY COLLINS: Jerry, what was it about you that with all these tens of thousands of kids from all over the country that they said this is Theodore Beaver Cleaver?
JERRY MATHERS: You know, I think it was just that I was very honest with them. In one of the interviews I went on, which was one of the last ones, because, as I said there was several interviews and they, you know, interviewed literally hundreds of people — but it wasn’t just for the Beaver, it was for Wally, Beaver, and all his friends, but one of the last ones I went on when it was down to the last few people, I had a — I had just joined the Cub Scouts, and I had a meeting that day, and I said — told my dad, well, I can’t go to the interview, I have my Cub Scout meeting, my dad said, don’t worry, we’ll go, it’s not going to be like the first few interviews where there was all those kids, this is one where, you know, there’s just a few people. Well, of course, I was almost the last person taken in and I was — I always like to be on time, so I was very kind of jumpy and they looked at me and said, Jerry, what’s wrong? And I walked in, and I said, well, you know, I really have to be at my Cub Scout uniform, okay, you can go. And I went, and what they said then was, they called my parents that night and said they’d rather have a boy that wanted to go to a Cub Scout meeting than, you know, be an actor and I had the job for — that was the pilot, and then we did the pilot. And then it sold, then for the next six years we did Leave it to Beaver.
LIBBY COLLINS: Now, you said that Wally, Tony Dow, wasn’t cast until after you were already in place. Who —
JERRY MATHERS: In fact, he didn’t do the pilot.
LIBBY COLLINS: He didn’t?
JERRY MATHERS: Well, the boy that did the pilot with me was a very nice boy, but it took about probably three — I don’t even know how many months, but it took quite a few months, and we did the pilot and I had done other things like that, so if they didn’t call back it wasn’t any big deal. And all of a sudden, we went back and there was a new person, and that boy had grown to be almost 6 feet. So, he was actually a little bit taller than Hugh Beaumont, and that’s when they found Tony Dow. And he was just perfect for the part. He was an AAU swimming and diving champ at like — I think he was 12 or 13 at the time, but he was really what they were really looking for for a Wally character.
LIBBY COLLINS: You mentioned Hugh Beaumont and, of course, Barbara Billingsley, Ken Osmond, and many others who rounded out the cast. When did you all first get together? And do you remember your reaction to everybody or just it just a job to you at that time?
JERRY MATHERS: That’s a hard one to answer. The only people that we did the pilot, the only people from the pilot that were actually on the show were Barbara and myself. They had a different Wally and a different father. Hugh Beaumont was a really nice person. A lot of people don’t know this, he was a Methodist minister and he had started becoming an actor just so he could preach to this very poor congregation in downtown Los Angeles, and he was just a wonderful man.
Barbara was a very well-known model, you know, for women’s clothing.
And so, everybody on the show, the producers went to great lengths to make sure that everyone had kids and knew how to get along with kids, that just wasn’t the cast, but the crew. Because working with kids is a little different than working with adults. I mean, adults, you know, they’re actors, but kids can act up and everything. So, we just had a really good time, and it was something I’m very proud of and still proud to this day.