Leave It to Beaver’s Wally Cleaver — played by Tony Dow — was the ideal older brother: handsome, athletic, decent and always there for his little brother, “The Beaver,” played by Jerry Mathers. Dow co-starred in the series for six seasons beginning in 1957 when he was 12, and then again when an updated series returned for a run in the ’80s. Dow, now 72 and living in California, has worked as an actor, director, producer and, most recently, sculptor. He and his wife of 37 years, Lauren Dow, will perform A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook for two shows Feb. 18.
What made you decide to do the stripped-down, two-character play Love Letters?
A guy in Texas had a theater and he asked if I would come down and do Love Letterswith Judy Norton [TV’s The Waltons] and I fell in love with the play. I also did it with [Three’s Company’s] Joyce DeWitt and [Olympic figure skater] Tai Babilonia. I was also getting up in age where my memory wasn’t real solid, so a play where you can sit down and just read it was perfect. Plus you don’t have to go through the fancy hoo-ha of staging. It’s a simple presentation and it’s all about the material.
Tony & Lauren Dow in Love Letters
Feb. 18 | 2 & 7 p.m.
The Kate | Old Saybrook
You were born and raised in Hollywood and were the son of a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. Did you always want to be an actor?
I never did. My mom wasn’t after a career. She just followed some friends at the studio and got lucky because she looked like Clara Bow and became her stunt double. I didn’t know that much about the business, either. I was really raw. But somebody saw something. Most of the kids on TV at the time were a little precocious, and overacted a little. I couldn’t overact because I wouldn’t have known how. Once I understood what the whole thing was about, my heroes became people like Brando and James Dean. My mantra from the beginning was to let it just be real and natural.
It’s now 60 years since the show began.When did you realize Leave It To Beaver was not just a popular TV series but an iconic representation of an era — if not an adjective?
When I was older. As a kid you’re not thinking that anyone will see it two years [later], let alone 60.
It struck a chord.
I’m somewhat shy, so when people would say things like, “You helped my childhood,” or, “You helped me through some difficult times,” I figured they were just trying to say something nice. But now I realize there are a tremendous number of people who loved the show and still love it. It’s amazing to me.
The series ended just before the assassination of JFK, the arrival of the Beatles and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. In a way, did the series represent the last wave of more innocent times in America?
The loss of innocence is what it was. Life took a U-turn with the hippie movement, free love and Woodstock. Not only did the music change but people changed, and their desires in what they were seeking out of life changed.
Was breaking away from the character of Wally difficult? You were in the teen soap opera Never Too Young and episodes of shows such as Dr. Kildare and Mr. Novak.
I found it kind of difficult [after Beaver] because you do get typecast, although Wally is a pretty innocuous character to be typecast as. People really wanted you because you were Wally or they don’t want you because you were Wally. So I was a little resentful but never about the show. Later on, probably when I was in my 40s, I started to really appreciate the shows and occasionally watch one. They were amazingly well-written and well-produced.
You stayed friends your TV mom, Barbara Billingsley. Was she as gracious as she was in the series?
She was even more gracious. She was really one of the loveliest people I ever met. She had a great positive attitude and always had a smile. She did have her times when she would swear, which was always surprising to hear from her.
And she knew jive.
[Laughing] That’s right. She did.
Did your son see the program growing up and what did he think of his young father?
He saw it but I don’t think was very impressed by it. He had his own life and was very social in school and was an athlete. But he did act in one episode in The New Leave It to Beaver when he played a young Wally. And he was really good.
In the ’90s you went public with your struggle with depression.
I think it helped people. I did some film presentations that doctors used and I spoke in front of a congressional committee. I didn’t let it out of the bag for any reason other than I don’t hide anything. If you ask me something I’ll be more than happy to answer you to the best of my ability. [Depression] is a tough thing to go through and I felt talking about it was good because people would listen to their old friend from television whom they trusted.
Leave It To Beaver was America’s family.
Yeah, that’s true. The other family shows of that period — shows starring Danny Thomas, Donna Reed or Robert Young — were star-driven and were from the parents’ point of view. Ours was from the kids’ perspective and we were creating warm moments, not just laughs.
What would you tell your younger self from the Beaver days?
Back then I was an idealist, and when I was offered a lot of things like Beach Blanket Bingo, I turned them down because I thought they were exploitative movies. I would definitely not make that decision [in retrospect]. I would also tell him to be more confident and assertive. Those are two traits I kind of lack. I’d whip that young Tony into shape and tell him to get out there and do it.
Don’t whip him too much. His gentleness was what made him special.
Yes, but you can take it too far.
This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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