How ‘Leave it to Beaver’ began, and gave us an idealized view of the 50s we still hold today

Leave it to Beaver TV show cast

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It’s strange to think that “Leave it to Beaver” was actually not a big hit TV show — it never even cracked the top 30 during its initial six-year run.

In fact, ‘Beaver’ performed so poorly in the Neilsen Ratings during its first year that CBS canceled it.

ABC picked it up instead, and that decision helped propel the Cleavers to solid enough success to make a total of 235 episodes — and for the show to live on for decades via reruns.

The show embedded itself so firmly in the American psyche that — sixty-odd years later — many of us still think of the 50s as a wonderful, carefree time, where even the biggest problems could be solved in half an hour… and there would always be milk and cookies waiting for you when you got home.

Leave it to Beaver 1950s sitcom

Leave it to Beaver TV show: Busy ‘Beaver’ a family affair (1957)

“I would like to be a bear,
gay and happy, free from care.
That’s the life, like no other,
climbing trees with my mother.”

The third-grade teacher had asked for a poem, and the above verse, painfully scribbled with a pencil stub, was the result. It was composed by little Beaver Cleaver during his first half-hour on ABC-TV last fall.

Since then, “Leave It to Beaver,” starring Jerry Mathers as Beaver, has become a national viewing habit as it faithfully and humorously mirrors every family’s growing up pains and joys.

Leave It To Beaver TV show cast

Leave it to Beaver TV show was a family affair, with Beaver, Wally, June and Ward Cleaver

Last week, Beaver plumb forgot an invitation to a birthday party. This Thursday, he’ll bring home a report card showing excellence in everything but physical education. Daddy will try to correct matters in a sequence titled “Beaver the Athlete.”

“Beaver” was a jolly family affair from scratch, but during its premiere year on CBS, it suffered from shifting schedules and fringe viewing hours. Millions now watching never saw it. ABC corrected that by firmly anchoring it at 7:30 pm on Thursdays.

The family situation comedy is television’s toughest battle arena. Many aspire, few are chosen. List “Father Knows Best,” “Bachelor Father,” “Lassie,” Danny Thomas, Donna Reed, Ozzie and Harriet, and you’ve just about called the roll. The latest hopeful entries are “Peck’s Bad Girl” and “Too Young To Go Steady,” both rocky despite capable and competent performers.

Though all durable situation comedies lampoon the family circle, they are carefully contrived to be as basic, human and natural as possible. “Leave It to Beaver” is blessed with these ingredients.

Vintage publicity photo from Leave it to Beaver - Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow

A powerful team behind “Leave it to Beaver”

It was created by writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, skilled craftsmen who came to “Beaver” well equipped with practical know-how and source material. Connelly has six children, Mosher has two. Together they scripted the guffawful Frank Morgan, Edgar Bergen and Phil Harris shows of yesteryear. As a team for 10 years, they wrote more than 1,200 “Amos ‘n’ Andy” programs. They know their business.

Another major success factor is director Norman Tokar, a wiry little redhead with a James Cagney build and a Mr. Peepers attitude. He is another situation comedy expert. He masterminded the fabulously successful “Henry Aldrich” series on radio. He directed “Life With Luigi” and “My Favorite Husband” on television.

I love to watch him work as he cajoles, coaxes or spurs spirited performances from the “Beaver” cast. He has infinite patience. No “Beaver” performer does a scene without first reading it over with Tokar. At one time or another during rehearsal, he plays every role.

MORE: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: The quintessential 50s family

Leave it to Beaver - Beaver and Wally

These are the men who have molded the “Beaver” pattern and their biggest attraction, of course, is 11-year-old Jerry Mathers, who never wanted to be an actor, and is still quite unenthusiastic about it.

On the set, a while back, Jerry’s mother told me how it all began. When Jerry was about two, a saleslady at the Broadway department store asked, “Does he model?” Before astonished Mrs. Mathers could answer, “No!” the lady said, “Oh, come with me. What size shoe does he wear?”

Jerry was literally grabbed from her arms, taken upstairs, fitted with new shoes and photographed for a Christmas advertisement.

Mrs. Mathers was bewildered by the reaction. More modeling jobs were offered to Jerry. He posed for renowned photographers: Lyman Emerson, who now works in San Francisco, John Engstead, others. Jerry couldn’t take a bad picture. And still pictures led to moving pictures.

How to be a perfect 50s housewife: In the kitchen

Leave it to Beaver - Mr and Mrs Cleaver

How Hitchcock helped Leave it to Beaver’s Jerry Mathers become a star

His big break came when he replaced a sick child and read the pledge of allegiance on the old “Lux Video Theater.” The intermission guest was Alfred Hitchcock.

“Mr Hitchcock kept glowering at Jerry,” said Mrs. Mathers. “I was sure he thought Jerry was a brat. But two days later, he sent us a script. He said Jerry resembled Shirley MacLaine so much he wanted him to play her son in ‘The Trouble With Harry.'”

That did it. Jerry mopped up more experience. His credits grew. When it was time to cast “Beaver,” Messrs. Connelly, Mosher and Tokar tested 277 boys and chose Jerry — a decision they never have regretted.

Jerry Mathers & Tony Dow: See what Beaver and Wally look like all grown up!

Tony Dow (Wally) is a Los Angeles-born boy who also became an actor through happenchance. A neighbor, actor Bill Bryant, encouraged him to try out for two proposed TV series. Neither got on television but Tony did through “Beaver,” his third try. His mother is Muriel Montrose, former Mack Sennett player.

Hugh Beaumont (Ward, the father) is a native Kansan who came to California, studied theology at USC, intended to become a Methodist minister.

In 1941, he was a contestant on “Gateway to Hollywood,” a radio program designed to showcase young performers. Hugh won the top award, married his fellow contestant, Kathryn Hohn (they have three children), and has been acting ever since.

WATCH THE BEAV AGAIN! Stream episodes or buy it on DVD

Barbara Billingsley (June, the mother) is another native Angeleno who came up through little theater groups and movies. Her first TV series was “Professional Father” with Steve Dunne. She is a fine actress, the most polished and professional of the crew. The widow of former TV film director Roy Kellino, she has two sons, Drew and Brud.

These are the people who have made “Leave It to Beaver” a weekly joy to many viewers, especially George Gobel, who took the big gamble, bankrolled the series and has lived happily ever after on the profits therefrom.

Leave it to Beaver comic book cover - Fishing

Life after Leave It To Beaver: former child stars Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers on their acting careers and beyond (1977)

Leave it to Beaver opening theme song and closing credits from Season 1 (video)

YouTube video

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Comments on this story

3 Responses

  1. I have to disagree with your headline. You say the show was “an idealized version of the 50s that never actually existed.” This is a myth that keeps being pushed and it needs to stop.

    That 50s DID exist for many families. Did it exist for *all* families? Of course not, but I don’t think the people behind “Beaver” ever said it did. Sure, that decade (like all decades) had serious issues and problems, but it was a half hour sitcom, and wasn’t meant to convey every experience. The Cleaver family actually was typical of many families, just not all families.

    1. I was going to say exactly that. Many in my family fondly remember lots of good times quite similar to the stereotypical 1950s ideal. Even if it wasn’t exactly accurate, it evoked feelings of a warmer, safer, simpler time.

  2. The poem cited was written not by Beaver but by Ward, who penned it
    for Beaver after getting frustrated with Beaver’s inability to come up with a poem before bedtime. June later teased Ward about the “climbing trees with my mother” line.

    I agree with the two other posts here.
    Many kids did grow up in such a household. Mine came pretty close.
    The Cleavers may have been an ideal, but not a bad family to emulate.

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