Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Leave it to Beaver: Classic Family Fun!

Jerry Mathers as Beaver Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. 

Some actors spend their lives tending bar in Hollywood restaurants waiting to be discovered. Jerry Mathers walked into a department store with his mother and shortly after he'd learned how to walk and talk he was already a Hollywood "pin-up" boy--literally. A department store owner saw his cute freckled face and used his photo for the cover for the stores calendar. Six months later, in 1954, he debuted on the Ed Wynn show. In 1955 he was cast in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry. Mathers appeared in two more films before 1957 when he was cast as Beaver Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. Jerry Mathers was a not-so-typical all-American boy. He was an overnight sensation. Promoters, producers, directors, and viewing audiences across America were crazy for the kid from the time they first saw that cute face on the department store calendar. 

Meet the Cleavers (or the actors)

Of course we must start with Beaver! Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver (Jerry Mathers) lives with his parents and older brother in the town of Mayfield. When Jerry Mathers auditioned for the role he was a bit fidgety. The producers asked if he was nervous and he said, "No, but I gotta go to my Boy Scout meeting!" That sealed the deal. They were looking for an all-American boy who caught frogs, rode his bicycle with his friends so he could be home in time for dinner, and spoke respectfully to his parents. They found the right boy in Jerry Mathers. 

Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers who played Wally and Beaver in Leave it to Beaver.

Wally Cleaver (Tony Dow) is Beaver's older brother. He grew up in Hollywood, but like many young actors (John Wayne's protege Gail Russell) Dow just wanted to have fun with his friends. He wasn't in Hollywood seeking stardom, he was just being a kid. Sometimes that attitude brings out the best in a child during an audition. Dow's friend auditioned for a show and Dow promised to be there for moral support. He was a bit too supportive--he got the part! When Leave it to Beaver ended, Dow became a regular on daytime soaps. He even starred in a very important commercial for McDonalds Restaurants (he married the woman who gave him the role!) 

Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as Ward and June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver.

Hugh Beaumont stars as Ward Cleaver, the well-intentioned father who works hard as an accountant, but is eager to advise his sons. He sometimes makes mistakes. He is human, and that's why we like him. Beaumont had a side career as a Methodist minister. On the show, Beaumont is married to June (Barbara Billingsley), the perfect mom for the, well, average family! I am well-familiar with Billingsley as she was a regular in detective dramas and B-movies. In spite of her obvious acting talent, Billingsley was convinced she was cast in the role because the producers felt sorry for her as her husband recently died. Clearly, she was cast because she was the perfect mom for Beaver. The line you hear her speak most often in the show? "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver..."

Jerry Mathers as Beaver in Leave it to Beaver. 

I just have to include this story! I read it in John Javna's Cult TV. When Jerry Mathers auditioned for the role, he was asked to cry, but struggled with the request. Hugh Beaumont, also auditioning for the role of Beaver's father, took Mathers aside and quietly suggested that if he cover his face with his hands and laugh it will sound the same as crying. According to Jerry Mathers, he went home that night and prayed that Hugh Beaumont would get the part of Ward Cleaver, and he did. 

Trouble, Trouble, Trouble

Part of the appeal of this show is the fact that they really are average. They are not too perfect, in spite of the fact that Barbara Billingsley is always shown cooking dinner in a dress with pearls (she wore the pearls because she had an indentation in her throat that she thought looked bad on camera). When Ward comes home from work, the first words he generally hears from his wife are, "Ward, I'm very worried about the Beaver." 

The phrase Beaver hears most often from his brother, Wally, is, "Boy, Beave, are you gonna get it..." Beaver is subjected to a tremendous amount of family advice, particularly from his brother, but the most touching advice the Beaver hears comes from his father who tells him, "I don't care what kind of trouble you may get into in your life, you don't ever need to be afraid to come to your parents and tell them." 

Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow as Beaver and Wally in Leave it to Beaver. 

Beaver attends Grant Avenue Grammar School, which means he is in school with students from kindergarten age through eighth grade. Beaver is in the second grade when the show begins and his brother, Wally, is in the eighth grade, and naturally feels a bit of responsibility toward his younger brother. 

In the episode, "The State Versus Beaver, which aired on March 26, 1958, Ward helps Beaver and his friend, Larry, build a homemade race car (powered by a lawn mower engine), but he also provides them with a long list of restrictions, including restricting them from riding the vehicle in the street. Of course, Beaver and Larry break just about every rule, including driving the car in the street. Beaver is afraid to tell his parents and convinces Wally to appear as his "guardian." Beaver receives a ticket and appears before a judge in traffic court. The judge agrees to "sponge off" the record, but Wally does tell his father about the incident. When Ward asks Wally why Beaver didn't come to him in the first place, Wally replies, "he didn't want you to feel bad 'cause you got a kid like him." Aww. This episode goes straight to the heart, and of course Beaver is given the "talk" about always telling your parents, no matter what you do.  

So, who are these trouble-making co-conspirators? 

Wally and the Beaver both have best friends, and if truth be told, the two boys and their friends manage to find equal amounts of trouble, but we'll start with Wally's friends. 

Ken Osmond plays Eddie Haskell, Wally's best friend in Leave it to Beaver. Osmond later joined the Los Angeles Police Department and was shot in the line of duty, saved by his bullet-proof vest.

Perhaps the most famous of their friends is Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond), who is Wally's best friend. He is Wally's foil. Classic good versus bad. Where Wally tries (but sometimes fails) to do the right thing, Eddie inevitably tries to do what he knows is wrong. He is known as a two-faced wise guy, but Wally, remember, is a very forgiving person. (Believe it or not, Ken Osmond, in his adult years, joined the Los Angeles Police Department and was decorated for valor when he was shot in the line of duty, saved by his bullet-proof vest.) The reason Eddie is fun to watch because he's so obnoxious! And, because he brings out the best in Wally, highlighting Wally's ability to forgive. I like that in Wally.

Wally is also friends with Clarence "Lumpy" Rutherford (Frank Bank). Lumpy is big, a bit slow, and according to leaveittobeaver.com, Beaver refers to the Eddie Haskell/Lumpy Rutherford team as "Creeps Incorporated." In the real world, though, Frank Bank eventually became a successful stock broker in Palm Springs, which only goes to show that you can't judge a book by its cover, or its on-screen character! 

Beaver's best friend is Robert "Rusty" Stevens (Larry Mondello). Rusty of course has red hair, hence the nickname, and a nice spread of freckles to highlight the hair. He is a bit whiny and always munching on something, most often an apple that he has pulled out of his pocket.

Kid Talk

Beaver, Wally and his friends were known for their "kid talk" on the show. Since the emphasis was on presenting them as average American kids (note the contrast between the carefully dressed and cleanliness of Ward and June to their dirty, dusty sons), then of course they are going to come up with their own form of kid slang. 

Wally and Beaver both use the word "gyp" when they've been cheated out of something. Of course, in contemporary television the word would not be used as it is a hurtful form of expression implying that gypsies are thieves, but this is not something that ever would have occurred to Wally and Beaver. They also talk about "messing around," which is a phrase I still use to explain that I'm not really doing anything important. 

Some of the more interesting terms are "hunka," which means a large serving, generally of desert. They also use words that were popular in the 1940s with gangs, which is an interesting cultural observation, words like "rat" and "wiseguy." Some of Beaver's favorite words are: crummy; creep; grubby; goofy; and his favorite phrase when he is feeling frustrated or receives some form of punishment is "oh, gee whiz." 

Popularity of Leave it to Beaver 

Leave it to Beaver had solid ratings, consistent ratings, and yet, it never made it into the Top 30. This could be because of the competition in the time slot--during its first season it was up against The Defenders and in its final season it competed with Perry Mason, and in the 50s, shows about law and order were as popular as shows about families. Nevertheless, critics called the show charming and sincere. Variety compared the series to Tom Sawyer

Family time for the Cleavers in Leave it to Beaver. 

Leave it to Beaver ran from October 4, 1957, to September 12, 1963. During that time, the show received two Emmy nominations, both in 1958 for Best New Program Series of the Year and Best Teleplay Writing for the pilot episode "Beaver Gets Spelled." Years later, in 1984, Jerry Mathers received the Young Artist's Former Child Star Special Award and in 1987, Ken Osmond and Tony Dow both received the Young Artist's Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award. Ken Osmond was also nominated in 2005 for TV Land's Character Most Desperately in Need of a Timeout Award! Leave it to Beaver did make Time Magazine's list of "The 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time" and the show placed at number 74 on Bravo's list of "100 greatest TV Characters."

Jerry Mathers as Beaver in Leave it to Beaver. 

If I had to name one reason why I am a dedicated fan of Leave it to Beaver it would have to be the undeniable fact that the characters are real--they are flawed. They make mistakes, and, well, golly gee, Leave it to Beaver is just plain fun. 

Postscript: Regarding my comment about the word "gyp." According to my most trusted word origin source, World Wide Words, it is widely believed to come from gypsy, but the word actually originated in the U.S., so the author of the page questions the racist connection.

  • Applebaum, Irwin. "The Gang." leaveittobeaver.org. Retrieved April 16, 2013.
  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985.
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.

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