Silicon Valley Comic Con 2018

The Little Gentleman

Intro | Call the Doctor | Cosplay Queen | Trouble Women | The Little Gentleman | Star Struck | The Prophet of Steampunk

Jerry Mathers

Now that the first episodes of Leave it to Beaver are arriving at solar systems roughly 60 light years from Earth, one can wonder what it was that made the show so enduring. Jerry Mathers, who played a foible-prone little boy named Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver, comes to Silicon Valley Comic Con for the customary signing, gripping and grinning.

Mathers, surely as important a cultural figure as Marshall Mathers, was a natural young actor who had worked under Hitchcock in The Trouble with Harry. Over the course of 234 episodes he kept the brisk, easy appeal of a kid. Nobody hated him. And despite persistent rumors of him having been KIA in Vietnam, Mathers didn't follow the Former Child Actor's familiar road of trouble. He did record some proto-punk in 1963 with his band Beaver and the Trappers. Mathers banked his money, did dinner theater and earned a philosophy degree from UC Berkeley.

Leave it to Beaver is considered the archetypal bland sitcom, and the fictitious town of Mayfield an almost fatuously perfect vision of leafy suburbs. Tony Dow, who played Beaver's older brother, Wally, once explained that really funny lines on the show were customarily cut—the point was to keep a low dynamic range of contented chuckles. Leave it to Beaver had a fine ear for kids' slang in the time between Eisenhower and JFK. It excelled in tales of sibling rivalry and the grubby side of little boys. It had an impressive cast of frenemies, including the mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Eddie Haskell.

What went on in the family was interesting, too, with the problem of disciplining children during the rise of the baby boom. Beaver's parents, Ward (Hugh Beaumont) and June (Barbara Billingsley), had to conference quite a bit on the right way to proceed, as the couple were turning away from the "beat 'em when they sneeze" style punishments of their own childhoods.

Would there have been a Mr. Rogers without Hugh Beaumont, that actor for those who found Fred MacMurray too stimulating? Beaumont was a Methodist lay preacher who turned to acting to fund a rescue mission he was running. Sadly, the poor man later developed Tourette's. It must have been disturbing to see Ward Cleaver swearing his head off in the supermarket—fortunately, L.A. is accustomed to the differences between an actor's life on and off-screen.

Billingsley is always remembered as the kind of mom who wore pearls when doing housework—Marge Simpson still wears them, in June's honor—but her nonchalance stayed fresh for decades. Take the 1983 "Still the Beaver" TV movie—a must-see viewing event in its day. The Beaver was fresh off a divorce, boomeranging back to Mayfield on the bus. ("Take the Long Way Home" by Supertramp played on the soundtrack). Hearing of his visit, June goes to the cemetery and arranges herself in the grass by her husband's tombstone: "Ward," she said, "I'm worried about The Beaver."

Mathers will appear onstage for the Leave it to Beaver Reunion on Sunday.

Jerry Mathers
Apr 8, 4pm
Silicon Valley Comic Con, San Jose

Star Struck