An Interview with Tony "Leave It to Beaver" Dow
by Lee Sobel (8/22/20)
I didn't grow up in the 50's so I guess that's why my dad didn't sit at home in a suit and tie and mom didn't walk around wearing pearls and heels. I wasn't born yet when Leave It to Beaver premiered on network television in 1957 but I certainly watched the show in reruns and enjoyed the hijinks of Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver and his older brother Wally (and of course their ingratiating friend Eddie Haskell). The show presented a wholesome American family that one either made fun of for being so square or secretly felt jealous of because their own parents had gotten divorced (like mine) or both.
Here's a few fun facts about the show. The original pilot had another actor playing the brother of Jerry Mathers aka "The Beaver." A shot of a toilet tank got past the censors so the show was the first TV show to show one. The first season aired on CBS but after one season, the network canceled it and starting with the second through sixth season Leave It to Beaver aired on the ABC network. There were a total of 234 episodes. After six seasons, the show was still going strong and it wasn't canceled for a dip in the ratings but because Jerry Mathers wanted to
retire from TV and go to high school. The cast minus Hugh Beaumont, who passed away in 1980, came back together to make a TV movie in 1983, Still The Beaver. Based on the success of that telefilm, a new cable TV series ran for five years from 1984-89, The New Leave It to Beaver. Like the original series it also changed networked -- from The Disney Channel) to TBS (total 101 episodes). Barbara "June Cleaver" Billingsley passed away in 2010, Frank "Lumpy Rutherford" died in 2013 and Ken "Eddie Haskell" Osmond just passed away this year on May 18, 2020.
Tony "Dow grew up around Hollywood. His mother had been an extra in movies and ended up doing stunt work, doubling for Clara Bow aka "The It Girl." Prior to being cast as Wally on Leave It to Beaver, Tony was trained as a swimmer and driver, had won awards through the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and was a Junior Olympics diving champion who has aspirations of someday competing in the Olympics. He had very little acting training and had only made one TV pilot before becoming famous as Wally Cleaver. He's also worked numerous "real" job like in construction and now he is a respected sculptor.
Lee Sobel: I heard that prior to be cast as Wally on Leave It to Beaver that you didn't really have any acting experience. You were an athlete?
Tony Dow: That's right. I'd done a pilot and I'd been up for three different things: The Mickey Mouse Club, Tarzan and Leave It to Beaver. I was actually offered all of them. My mom asked me which one I wanted to do. I said I couldn't sing and dance very well, so let's do Tarzan. But my mom felt that Leave It to Beaver had a lot of credibility behind it and that it might be better for me to do so I said okay and that changed my life.
Lee Sobel: Let's talk about Wally Cleaver. Was he anything like you, did you enjoy playing him and did you ever wish you were not so associated with him? I have to imagine you've been called Wally and asked "How's the beave?" a few trillion times.
Tony Dow: It can be intrusive when people call out to you and you turn to them because you think you know them, and you don't. That was one aspect that made me uncomfortable when I was on Leave It to Beaver. The writers of the show, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, were really smart guys. They based the character on me as they got to know me. If I had been a more bookish type, they probably would have made Wally the head of the book club. They did the same thing with Jerry. The only actor who was really different was Ken Osmond who wasn't quite as much a wise guy as Eddie Haskell.
Lee Sobel: As the series became popular and the actors became more famous, were there any egos to contend with on the show?
Tony Dow: The only ego problem was with the mother of Rusty Stevens who played Larry Mondello and I felt bad about that because I thought he was really great on the show. His mother became a pain in the butt to the producers, which is why he
disappeared from the show. I guess she was making too many demands. That's the only ego I ever saw on the show. That was never an issue with Jerry and myself. To avoid that kind of thing the producers asked our parents not to let us watch the show. Most people would want to gather everyone they knew when their kid was on TV and then everyone could say how great that kid was. So the producers didn't want us to watch the shows and I didn't see any of the episodes until I was much older. To this day there are plenty of episodes I've never even seen. I think that was very smart because instead of thinking we were funny or great or whatever, we just thought of ourselves as two kids that went to work.
Lee Sobel: When you were a teenager, rock 'n roll exploded across the country. Were you a fan of the music? Did you ever meet Elvis or any other famous rock 'n roll stars?
Tony Dow: Yeah I was a fan of Elvis and like all the kids I listened to the radio every night. But actually when I was 14 I started listening to jazz and got really into it and that became my thing. I was a little offbeat in that way.
Lee Sobel: Looking back at how formal your TV parents dressed on the show, do you feel that was an accurate portrayal of families in the 50's. Like June Cleaver wearing heels and pearls, for instance.
Tony Dow: Well originally Barbara Billingsley who played my mom on the show wore flats but then when Jerry started getting taller they put her in heels to give her a little more height over us. As for the pearls, she had some kind of dent on her neck and the lighting guy was catching it in the light and he asked if there was something they could put on it to cover it up. That's how they came up with the necklace she wore on the show. The producers knew that the show would be seen all over the world and they wanted the show to portray American families in the best light so they spruced things up.
Lee Sobel: When the show ended you were eighteen. You spent your entire adolescence on the show. Since you were working so hard and producing 39 episodes a year, do you feel you missed out on your teenage years at all?
Tony Dow: The show was produced 42 weeks of the year so we got a couple months off usually in the middle of the summer so we got to do what other kids got to do in the summer like go to camp or go on vacation. My parents loved Catalina so we spent the summers over there. I had friends but sure their attitudes changed as I got known on the show. Sometimes they'd be razzin' me and other times they'd be overly nice. They weren't treating me like other kids and that wasn't good for one's psychological development. I had gone to Hawaii and learned how to surf when I was around ten or eleven years old. I had a surfboard that was tailor made for me. I went out to Malibu to surf. Surfing in general is kind of a territorial thing. People who surf a particular area all the time become a group and they don't like newcomers coming in. They definitely didn't like me coming in so they would yell at me, razz me, cut me off and unfortunately I gave up surfing which is too bad because surfing is a great sport. But that's what happens when you try to meld into another group. They're not interested in some celebrity kid showing up.
Lee Sobel: So you're eighteen, it's the 60's - what was your experience with Vietnam and the counterculture at that time?
Tony Dow: I never got involved in the counterculture -- I thought it was cool and I really liked some of the folk groups and I thought Woodstock was really bitchin', but I didn't smoke dope and I didn't even drink. Because I was working all the time I wasn't that social and I was shy around people. I got cast in 1965 on a daytime serial show called Never Too Young and they didn't want me to get drafted so I joined the National Guard. I had to keep my hair short for that so I looked very different because everyone else was growing their hair long. So it became difficult to get cast because everyone else had longer hair and I only got cast in an Adam-12 episode where I played an army guy. That was when the acting sort of dried up.
Lee Sobel: I read that you worked as a journalist and in construction.
Tony Dow: When I was in advanced training in the army I was in journalism school but I didn't really become a journalist. The family of a buddy of mine
in the National Guard had a painting company and brought me in to work with him. Then I started designing things and building things I designed. It would have been a great business if I really known how to run a business, but I really didn't. I did that for a few years.
Lee Sobel: I read that you had been diagnosed with clinical depression. Can you talk about that?
Tony Dow: It probably went back to when I was a swimmer and diver and there was a lot of pressure to win and perform. I never got into psychoanalysis deep enough but without medication I don't know what would have happened. That's what snapped me out of it. It's misunderstood. People who don't have it don't know what it is. They think it's just having the blues or feeling crappy and they don't know how hard it is to live with it. I've had it under control now for a number of years, but it does crop up occasionally. It's the most painful thing you can go through, I think. It's really amazing the medications they have now. A lot of people are against taking medication for your mental stability but it's really been a savior and made life a hell of a lot easier to deal with for me. I made a few videos years ago on this subject and connected with some people who said it helped them and that was very fulfilling. Most people who are afraid to talk to someone who could help them are just as afraid to talk to anyone about it. There's a real stigma attached to it. I think people who don't have control over their feelings, or feel depressed for more than a week, should try to seek help with it.