Here, we catch up with Jerry Mathers, the 70-year-old star of the iconic series, to talk childhood fame, the time Bob Hope saved his life and his battle with Type 2 diabetes.
How did a mild-mannered kid from Iowa wind up starring in one of the longest-running shows in television history? It all came down to a chance encounter in a department store in Los Angeles.
On that fateful day in 1950, Jerry Mathers was just a toddler accompanying his mother on a routine shopping trip when a store clerk approached the pair.
“This lady asked my mother if I was her little boy and my mom immediately thought I’d touched something or torn the clothing,” Mathers, 70, recalls. “Then the woman said, ‘We noticed your son is very calm and it looks like he’d fit our clothes perfectly and we were wondering if he could be in a fashion show.'”
The Mathers clan, who’d recently left Jerry’s native Iowa for his father’s teaching career, were weary of strangers from “the big cities.” But a paid gig when money was tough to come by was too much to pass up.
“[When the store clerk] said I would be paid and could keep the clothes I wore, my mom said, ‘well, I think he could do that.'” Mathers laughs. “A lot of people assume my mom and dad were pushy stage parents and wanted me to become an actor, but no way!”
That modeling gig shortly translated into regular television appearances for the tot and, before his ninth birthday, he was already a veteran of more than 50 live TV shows and commercials before he even landed the iconic role of Beaver Cleaver.
That lengthy childhood resume comes with one downside, however. “Since TV was all live back then, there’s no record of my early career,” Mathers sighs. “I have all these things listed on my resume, but no proof of it on video.”
But those early days aren’t entirely lost. Back in the late-1980’s, Mathers penned a memoir, And Jerry Mathers As The Beaver, which chronicled his early acting career and the famous people he worked with along the way. But so much has happened in the interim—including starting a family, his diabetes diagnosis and his 2007 Broadway appearance in the award-winning musical Hairspray—that Mathers is toying with the idea of writing a follow-up book.
But in the meantime, Mathers, now a married father-of-three with a toddler granddaughter, is on the lecture circuit, giving talks about his Type 2 diabetes diagnosis and making appearances at Leave It To Beaver conventions. “It always surprises me how many young people still watch it on reruns even though it’s in black and white,” he says.
Here, we catch up with Jerry Mathers at his home in Los Angeles to talk Hitchcock, diabetes and Leave It To Beaver.
On his first-ever acting gig…
“My first acting job came when I was only two years old [and] I appeared on The Ed Wynn Show. He was a popular vaudevillian at the time. This one time, PET Milk came to film a commercial for the show and I was hired to walk into a bar scene with all these stuntmen who were breaking bottles over each others’ heads. I moved up to the bar in my diaper, cowboy boots and hat and pounded on the bar top and said: ‘I’m the toughest hombre in these parts!’ Ed Wynn was playing the bartender in the commercial, and he handed me a bottle of PET Milk and said, ‘I certainly have your brand because you’re the toughest hombre in these parts.’ (laughs) What a lot of people often forget is that commercials were filmed live back then. Once I did that PET Milk commercial I worked all the time because producers saw that I didn’t get scared in front of a live audience.”
On his first meeting with Alfred Hitchcock…
“Once, while I was filming a different commercial in Los Angeles, this jolly man came up to me and said, ‘Helloooo, Mr. Mathers. I’ve been watching you in rehearsal and I was wondering if I could talk to your agent about you coming to Vermont with me.’ Being just six years old at the time, I had no idea it was Alfred Hitchcock. (laughs) But this was how I got the part in The Trouble With Harry (1955) which starred Shirley MacLaine in her very first role. Mr. Hitchcock and I were good friends. He would run lines with me and give me intonations and suggestions on character development. One of the unique things he did for me was be the first person to call me ‘Mr. Mathers’ which I only knew to be my father’s name. When I asked him about it he said that, as a working actor, I was entitled to the ‘mister.'”
On the time Bob Hope saved his life…
“I did two movies with Bob Hope (The Seven Little Foys, 1955, and That Certain Feeling, 1956). During filming of The Seven Little Foys, he actually saved my life. The movie is about Eddie Foy, one of the most famous vaudevillians of all time, and one particular scene featured a stage fire. I played [Hope’s] little boy in the movie and I was up in the catwalks behind the curtain for that scene. I was supposed to have a stuntman come up and take me away before the fire actually broke out, but they put way too much kerosene on the curtain and the stuntman couldn’t get to me in time. So, Bob Hope crawled up through the flames, put his jacket over me and carried me down to safety.”
On auditioning for Leave It To Beaver…
“When I went on the audition for Leave It To Beaver (in 1957), there were more than 7,000 kids between the ages of six and nine who were up for the role of the two main boys and their friends. It was an audition process that was nearly a month long. They had us all lined up and we’d meet one of the casting directors and we’d say a few lines and then they’d either send some of us home or call us back the next day. I was eventually chosen to be the Beaver. It was a wonderful time. The Universal backlot was huge and it felt like going on a field trip. At lunchtime we’d run around like it was our backyard. It was a very enjoyable childhood.”
On what makes Leave It To Beaver such a timeless classic…
“It’s very simple: it’s because it’s all taken from relatable real-life incidents. It always surprises me how many young people still watch it on reruns even though it’s in black and white. But then I think how I used to watch Our Gang when I was a kid, even though those serials were made in the 1920s and 1930s. The situations on Leave It To Beaver still translate to kids today. We were dealing with topical subjects, like school bullies and bad report cards.”
On one of his favourite fan encounters…
“For the longest time, if Japanese tourists recognized me on the streets of Los Angeles, they’d approach me and say, ‘You’re Happy Boy!’ I never knew what it meant. Then I learned that, in Japan, they don’t have a word for beaver because they don’t have any there. So, Leave It To Beaver is actually called The Happy Boy and His Family. So I was the Happy Boy.” (laughs)
On his life post-Beaver…
“I had never been to school; I’d always had a private tutor on set. It just so happened that Leave It To Beaver ended when I was 12 going on 13, which is freshman year in high school. I was basically brought up by 50 men and 20 women on set every day, so I just decided I wanted to go to a normal school. I was on the football team and the track team and, honestly, I was never a big star, but I was just happy I got to play. I graduated from high school in 1967 and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. I spent six years there. I later graduated from the University of California Berkley with a degree in philosophy.”
On his Type 2 diabetes diagnosis…
“I’m very open about having diabetes—it’s something an awful lot of people have. And I like using my celebrity for a good cause. In many cases, diabetes happens because you’re overweight and your pancreas can’t make enough insulin. I had owned a catering company for awhile, and was eating four or five big meals a day. I put on more than 60 pounds in a short period of time. I thought I was living the good life, until [in 1997] my doctor said, ‘How would you like to live for only three to five more years?’ I had no idea what she was talking about and she said ‘you have raging diabetes and you need to be on medication immediately or you will be dead within a few years.’ It was a wake-up call. She told me if I lose weight I will have a better chance of surviving, so I went on a medically supervised diet. I started walking and eating smaller quantities, and I’ve been pre-diabetic ever since.”
On life as a grandpa…
“I have a year-and-a-half old granddaughter, and my wife and I take care of her two or three days a week. In fact, the other day we brought her to the park and took her on the swing. She’s just started walking and she’s developed her own little personality. I’ve got my family and I get to lecture about diabetes and people approach me and share their stories…so life is really great right now.”
Happy Boy, indeed!