The highway of Classic TV shows is littered with the bodies of young actors who were either discarded by the industry that represented the only life they knew, were taken advantage of by parents who exploited them and stole all their money, or simply couldn’t cope with an existence outside of the cameras. Somehow, though, Jerry Mathers, who on Leave It to Beaver was the one that everything was left to, came through it all completely unscathed.

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Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Jerry, born Gerald Patrick Mathers on June 2, 1948 in Sioux City, Iowa, has actually been acting since the age of two when he was a child model for a department store ad. This was followed by a TV commercial for PET Milk, and then roles in the feature films This is My Love (1954), Men of the Fighting Lady (1954), The Seven Little Foys (1955), and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955). By the time he auditioned for and was cast as Theodore Cleaver in Leave It to Beaver, showbiz was something he’d become very accustomed to. And what would have been considered life-changing for so many people, he handled with aplomb. As he does the fact that here we are in 2018 talking about the show over sixty years after it began.

For Jerry, the show has never gone away.

“It just never quit,” the now 69-year-old Jerry points out to us in this exclusive chat. “Had it been something that kind of laid down and jumped back up, it might have been surprising, but it’s always been just very popular. I’ve always done a lot of interviews. I get a lot of people that see me on the street and still recognize me, and it’s always for Leave It to Beaver, even though I’ve done a lot of other things. But it’s a pleasure as an actor to have something that’s so well recognized and so well received, especially for all these years.”

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Leave It to Beaver was created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, and focused on the Cleaver family. Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley played the Beav’s parents, Ward and June Cleaver, with Tony Dow as big brother Wally, and Jerry Mathers, of course, as the Beaver. It was a gentle comedy that found its plots drawn from the experiences of real kids — admittedly set in a sitcom world — and parents who raised them with words of encouragement, while also being firm when necessary. In some ways, it seems strange that a show like that could still appeal to people so many years later, especially when considering that there’s so much cynicism in today’s world.

“But the world was just as cynical back then if not more,” he states, “because even though it was made in ‘57, we were coming out of World War II and then the Korean War. It was fairly tough times for a lot of people. It wasn’t the Depression by any means, but those were times when, if you had a job, you were very lucky; and people were happy to be in the United States. And the episodes work, I think, because all of the stories are from real life. If you watch sitcoms today, it’s a lot of what I call ‘joke shows’ where people have setup, setup, joke. And a lot of them really don’t have a lot of substance. The writers were more interested in getting a chuckle rather than a laugh, because they didn’t want people to miss other parts of it. There aren’t really those big laughs in real life, so they wanted it to be more like life. And if there was something that was funny, it was humorous, but it wasn’t fall-on-the-floor and start laughing funny.”

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And much of that came from the fact the writers and crew consisted largely of family-oriented people, which fed into the atmosphere for the show. “Joe Connolly and Bob Mosher had nine kids each, so they were used to dealing with kids,” Jerry says. “They were very selective of who they hired, because they wanted people who knew how to be with kids and work with them.”

Coping with the media spotlight wasn't difficult at all.

What’s so surprising is that Jerry really didn’t have any problems dealing with the spotlight, or the fact that his face adorned so much merchandise based on the show. “What was great is that we were sent the full line of everything they made; they even sent Schwinn bicycles for my sister, my brother and myself, because I rode one on the show,” he says with a smile. “Being in the ‘spotlight’ wasn’t anything different for me. I’ve been an actor since I was two years old. I worked with Hitchcock, I did two movies with Bob Hope. I worked as much before Leave It to Beaver as I did during it. Plus, people don’t pay a lot of attention to kids. Some people would recognize me on the street, but not that many. It was just a really good life. I had a great education and I got to do some fabulous things, like getting a private tour of the Smithsonian. Any place we went, we were singled out pretty much and got great treatment. Just a fantastic life for a kid.

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“On Leave It to Beaver, basically I had a hundred or so adults who were, in a lot of ways, like parents, and I was with them for eight hours a day,” he adds. “And it was very important to keep not only myself, but Tony and all the kids happy, because you can’t make a kid work. If for some reason a child doesn’t want to work and they say, ‘I don’t like this; I’m not doing it anymore,’ what do they do? To an adult actor you say, ‘Fine, we’ll sue you. We’ll take you for everything you’ve got.’ So we did all sorts of interesting things; they put up a basketball court and I played basketball with the sound man, the makeup man and the wardrobe man on one team, and the grips and the lighting people on the other. Tony had one team and I had the other. And a lot of times between takes or at lunch, we’d also build things.”

Specifically, he remembers building a boat with Tony Dow that was maybe 12 or 15 inches long, but actually ended up costing an “amazing” amount of money, because they sent it to the wood shop where the guys working there would help them out with it.

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“I don’t know what they were making an hour for that,” Jerry laughs, “because they were supposed to be building sets, and instead they’re sanding our boat. It was just a little boat that we took out to the lake to sail. So we just had all sorts of fun like that, and they were very happy to do it, because they wanted us to be happy so that we wanted to go there every day. And we really did.”

Leave It to Beaver ended its run in 1963 and Jerry re-entered "real" life.

When the show finished its run in 1963 (after 234 episodes), unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Jerry was ready to face real life, part of which came from the fact that during his years on the show he had a private tutor. “That’s like the education of the kings and queens of Europe,” he offers, instantly making us consider that had he preceded the statement with the word “Golly”, he would have sounded remarkably like the Beav. “My dad ended up Superintendent of LA City Schools, but at the time he was a vice principal and principal, and he could pick a tutor from the entire LA Unified District, which is huge. He picked great teachers for me and Tony, which was amazing.

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“So while I didn’t want to get off the show, it was fortuitous it ended when it did, because I could then go to high school,” he adds. “What I wanted to do was play sports. Tony Dow had been a star athlete. He was a gymnast. In fact, that’s one of the reasons they picked him, but he never really got to do his gymnastics on camera. Had he not done Leave It to Beaver, he probably would have been an Olympian, because that’s what he was training for and that’s what they wanted. When he interviewed for the show, they said, ‘Highly athletic.’ What’s funny is that Tony could take three or four steps, jump up in the air, do a front flip and land on his feet. And I said to myself, ‘I can’t do that,’ not realizing that most everybody else couldn’t do that, either. But he was the only person that I was really around, so I didn’t know. I would just look at him and go, ‘Oh, okay, I’m not gonna try that.”

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Also playing a role in his adjustment to an actual high school environment was the fact that about six weeks before the school year began, he tried out for and made the school’s frosh football team, which practiced with the JV and varsity teams. “So when I started school, the people that were my friends in this school were all the football players,” Jerry laughs. “And once you made the team, you were part of them, so nobody caused me any trouble, because I’d have some senior football players that would be, like, ‘He’s on our side. You better leave him alone.’ I guess I had a gang, what can I tell you?”

Jerry attended Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California (while there he was part of a band: Beaver and the Trappers). During those years he also became a part of the United States Air Force Reserve, which he stayed a part of even after graduating in 1967, achieving the rank of Sergeant. In 1973, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy. Shifting away from acting, he worked as a bank commercial loan officer, followed by a successful career in real estate development. By 1978, he dipped back into acting, actually teaming up with Tony Dow for a touring dinner theater production of So Long, Stanley, for about a year and a half. In 1981, he worked as a disc jockey at Anaheim, California radio station KEZY-AM.

And then there was Still the Beaver.

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But then, in 1983, he returned to his most famous role in the TV movie Still the Beaver, which did so well in the ratings that it spawned a follow-up series of the same name that ran initially on Disney Channel, and then TBS, all told spanning from 1983 to 1989 for a total of 105 episodes. The show follows the lives of the now adult Wally (Tony Dow) and Beaver, who are raising families of their own. Divorced, Beaver is living with his mom, June Cleaver (with Barbara Billingsley reprising her role). Ward had died several years earlier (as his real-life alter ego, Hugh Beaumont, had). Incredibly, it was a major success 30 years after the original had premiered, connecting with the audience by taking a similar approach to storytelling as that show had.

“All of us were determined to do the show the exact same way,” Jerry notes, “which meant all of the episodes are, again, from real life and not situation comedy. The show was very easy for me to do, because I knew everybody. These are people that I grew up with and liked. There wasn’t anybody where we said, ‘Oh, we don’t want that person back.’ You know, we’d see each other every once in a while over the years, but it wasn’t like a day to day thing. So it was a wonderful reunion.”

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When the show ended its run, Jerry continued acting, appearing on episodes of various TV shows, he wrote a memoir titled And Jerry Mathers as The Beaver, and made his debut on Broadway as Wilbur Turnblad in the musical Hairspray. He has three children and (get ready to have your mind boggled) three grandchildren. In 1996, he was diagnosed (“A diagnosis that saved my life,” he says matter of factly) with Type 2 diabetes. Losing more than 40 pounds, he eventually began speaking engagements to talk about the disease and what people can do to reverse it before things get out of hand.

A new passion: fundraising for diabetes.

“I kind of use Leave It to Beaver as the worm on the hook; I go in and talk about the show and the characters and sign some autographs, but I always slip in a little bit about diabetes,” he explains. “Most of the fundraising I do has something to do with diabetes. Diabetes education and keeping clinics open, because in the poorer communities a lot of people eat foods that they think are good for them, but you look around and they’re way overweight. Now I can walk into a room and tell you, probably with an 80% to 85% hit value, which people will, if they don’t start losing weight, have diabetes or are already pre-diabetic. This is all because after I was diagnosed I said, ‘Oh, this is not what I want. I don’t want to be six feet underground and have people say, ‘Yeah, well he had a good life. And then he ate himself to death.’”

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One point he does emphasize in closing is that it really has been a good life, and while acting isn’t something he’s really pursuing anymore, he’s loving every minute of it — and the fact that people never seem to forget Leave It to Beaver.

“People, I think, are really happy to meet me,” Jerry enthuses, “and just say hello and get an autograph. They just light up when they ask, ‘Would you sign this?’ Honestly, it’s the easiest thing in the world. I ask them their name and I sign, ‘Your friend, Jerry Mathers, The Beaver.’ The same autograph I’ve signed since 1957. They go away happy, and I'm happy just that I can make people that happy just by saying hello.”