05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Theodore Cleaver's second-grade teacher sent him home with a note, he hid up a tree and sniveled, "I'm going to stay here till I die." The Beaver lived in a world of dread, and everything worried him: teachers, girls and particularly the awful inevitability of growing up. He was television's first cold-war kid, a near neurotic who edged warily through life wearing a hesitant smile just made for a bigger kid to come along and wipe off. The Beaver looked like Tom Sawyer, but he was really small-town America's Woody Allen, an undersized underachiever who found even Mayfield an awfully tricky place to live.
Leave It to Beaver was the first TV program to see the world through the eyes of a child, which made it perfect entertainment for parents. The show was masterfully written—"A picnic," Beaver once explained, "is when you go out in the country and eat food off the dirt"—and featured a whole clubhouse of weird cronies, including the notoriously smarmy Eddie ("Good morrrrning, Mrs. Cleaver") Haskell. Launched the day before Russia's Sputnik in 1957 and canceled two months before the assassination of JFK in 1963, the show was a pop cultural bridge between the innocence of the '50s, and the disillusionment of the '60s.
Beaver's parents were of the era that was passing. June Cleaver did conventional housework. Ward Cleaver, an accountant, spouted conventional wisdom. The Beaver and his slightly thickheaded older brother, Wally, were children of a later, more unsettled age. June was always saying, "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver," and her concern was justified. They were perhaps the least exceptional kids ever featured on TV, no more blessed than the rest of us, yet the fame of the Beaver endures beyond mere reruns. It is not the actor in the role, Jerry Mathers, who is fondly remembered. It is the Beaver himself, whose very name has entered the language, standing for childhood as surely as apple pie stands for Mom.
In real life, Mathers went on to become a bank loan officer and a real estate salesman. Tony Dow, who played Wally, did soaps and construction work. Both were married and divorced. Today, they are back on TV, playing Wally and the Beaver in The New Leave It to Beaver on the Turner Broadcasting System. The Beav once told Wally, "Wouldn't it be neat if a guy could stay a kid all his life?" It turned out they could.