“Leave It to Beaver,” which aired from 1957 to 1963, depicted an idyllic post-war American suburban home and became a cultural touchstone for the baby boomer generation. Hugh Beaumont was the handsome and ever-patient father, Ward Cleaver, and Barbara Billingsley played the glamorous and understanding matriarch, June, who sucked in high heels and always slipped her boys into their beds.
Jerry Mathers, who was 8 at the start of the series, was cast as the lovable main character – the rambunctious, freckle-faced Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver. Mr. Dow, who was 12, played the good-natured and athletic eldest son, Wally, who developed an interest in girls. Ken Osmond had a memorable and recurring role as Wally’s sincere friend, Eddie, who always hugs adults.
The sitcom started on CBS but appeared for most of its run on the ABC network in third place and was never a major ratings success. But thanks to its sweet, wry humor and an appealing ensemble cast, it thrived in syndication far longer than more popular family sitcoms of that era, including “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show”. noted television pundit Robert Thompson.
With her light brown hair, her electric blue eyes and the athletic build of a championship diver – which he was before joining the show – Mr Dow was promoted as a teen idol and received more than 1,000 fan letters a week at his peak from the sitcom. Years later, Mathers was reminded of Mr. Dow as much as his “cool” persona: soft-spoken, suave and gifted with gymnastic skills which he displayed as he ascended and descended stairs on his hands.
Noting that the options for a former child actor were limited, Mr. Dow made his living on the dinner theater circuit in the 1970s. A producer, mounting a Kansas City production of the swinging-bachelor farce “Boeing, Boeing,” came up with the idea of bringing Mr. Dow and Mathers. To their surprise, they met a crowded and wildly enthusiastic audience for weeks.
The two actors filmed another adventure, “So Long, Stanley!”, for more than a year before Hollywood producers hired them and other surviving members of the original “Leave It to Beaver” cast. – Beaumont had died in 1982 – for a CBS-Reunion TV movie, “Still the Beaver” (1983).
Wally was now a successful lawyer, Beaver was unemployed, divorced and trying to cope with his own mischievous sons, and June was still dispensing helpful household advice. The program was a ratings success and spawned two sitcoms, including “The New Leave It to Beaver” on Ted Turner’s superstation WTBS from 1986 to 1989.
Many reviewers have compared watching the “Beaver” reruns to going into a time warp. But Mr. Dow defended the enduring appeal of the idealized Cleavers amid a rapidly changing television culture.
“When I see a drug show it can be an interesting story and I can get involved, but there’s not the same kind of identification as when Beaver took his dad’s power drill and did a hole in the garage door,” Mr. Dow told the Houston Chronicle in 1988. “These kinds of stories are what make up real life and grow from child to adult. People say the show is milk and cookies, but I disagree. I think that’s the essence of growing up.
Anthony Lee Dow was born in Hollywood on April 13, 1945 and grew up in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles. His mother was a former Mack Sennett “Bathing Beauty” who became a lookalike for silent film star Clara Bow and, briefly, a stuntwoman in Westerns. His father designed, built and renovated houses.
Mr Dow said he grew up with no particular interest in show business, focusing instead on athletics. He was a trampolinist as well as a swimmer and Junior Olympic Champion and Western States Diving Champion. In 1956, when he was 11, a lifeguard, an older man with acting ambitions, asked her to audition with him for a family adventure television show called “Johnny Wildlife.”
“He thought it would help him and me get the job since I was supposed to play his son,” Mr Dow told the New York Daily News. “He didn’t get the part, but I did.” The pilot did not sell, and Mr. Dow was soon back to life as a swimmer, until the following year when the producers of “Leave It to Beaver” came looking for a new Wally.
The child actor in the ‘Beaver’ pilot had an unfortunate growth spurt, and one of the ‘Johnny Wildlife’ producers recommended Mr. Dow as a replacement.
After production of “Leave It to Beaver” ended, he studied painting and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, played dramatic and comedic roles in various television series, and appeared in a soap opera for teenagers titled “Never Too Young”. “But after joining the National Guard in the mid-1960s, he said, his career stalled. Not knowing when he might be ordered to report for active duty, it was nearly impossible to make interim commitments.
Referring to a popular crime show, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I did an ‘Adam-12’ – I think because I was the only actor in town at the time with short hair. “
For years, he lived on a boat, sculpted, and lived off income mostly from running a construction business. Despite the perpetual airing of “Leave It to Beaver,” Mr. Dow did not get rich off the show. Due to a contractual stipulation, he only received residual payments for four years after the sitcom went into syndication.
From his twenties, he said, he began a long and gradual descent into clinical depression. “I would say legacy has more to do with it than acting,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It was a common disease on my mother’s side of the family. But “Leave It to Beaver” certainly has something to do with it. It certainly had something to do with raising one’s expectations and setting a certain standard that one would expect to endure in life.
Attempts to get back to playing only heightened his dark moods. He had played killers, single dads, and lawmen on other shows, but casting agents couldn’t get over their perception of him as sharp and serious Wally. The fact that so few people spoke openly about depression complicated his private struggle, he said, and for years he couldn’t find ways to deal with what he called a “sense of ‘uselessness, desperation’.
He was nearing 40 before he began to stabilize, thanks to what he called a major improvement in available drug treatments. In frequent speeches on mental health, Mr Dow noted that he was ‘just one of millions’ of people with depression. “If Wally Cleaver can be depressed,” he said, “anybody can be.”
Turning away from theater to focus on other art forms also helped. He had modest success as a sculptor, with works appearing in international galleries and exhibitions. Beginning with “The New Leave It to Beaver” in 1988, Mr. Dow also began a career as a television director, and his credits included episodes of “Babylon 5” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
His first marriage, to Carol Marlow, ended in divorce. In 1980 he married Lauren Shulkind, whom he met while working for an advertising agency and looking for an “American guy” to cast in a McDonald’s commercial. In addition to his wife, survivors include a son from his first marriage, Christopher; a brother; and a granddaughter.
In interviews, Mathers said there was a lot of Mr. Dow to Wally, that the character was less of a performance than a reflection. He was, by all accounts, a quiet personality in a profession full of showoffs.
“I could never understand the reaction Jerry or I would get from people,” Mr. Dow told the Kansas City Star in 2003. he looked really familiar to me.. I asked a flight attendant, ‘Who is this guy?’ And she said, ‘Oh, that’s [Harlem Globetrotter] Lemon Meadowlark.’ And the biggest smile appeared on my face.
“All of a sudden I understood what it was,” he continued. “I mean, I don’t to know what it is – but it happened to me. I just had this warm feeling and I smiled and thought, ‘You know, that’s really cool.’ ”