Leave It to Beaver: Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers Find a New Channel for Their Talent—Dinner Theater
05/05/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
Beaver's a paunchy 31, Wally's a graying 35, and both are divorced
During his Leave It to Beaver TV reign with co-star Jerry Mathers, the favorite scene of Tony Dow was the old fake bath bit. Sent upstairs by their parents to wash, the mischievous Cleaver kids would dampen towels, crumple their clothes, then toss dirt into the tub to create a ring. That was as earthy as television got back in 1957 when Dow as big brother Wally and Mathers as "the Beaver" joined I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best as triumphs of the so-called Golden Age. The pair lasted six years and 234 episodes before outgrowing their parts and heading separate ways.
Now they are partners again, and if they still aren't cleaning up, they are at least turning "a good dollar," the 35-year-old Dow reckons. Their vehicle: a confectionery farce titled So Long, Stanley that has been booked solid on the dinner-theater circuit for the past 14 months. Jerry Mathers, 31, plays the bumbling roommate of Dow, who is a libidinous bridegroom arriving home with a new wife. "We're not doing this as a meaningful piece of theater," Dow admits. "The tour's a business."
It is actually his longest-running piece of acting business since Beaver stopped production in 1963. Then a confident 18-year-old, Dow waited for the job offers to roll in, while spurning a half-dozen parts in beach-blanket movies. "I felt those films were corrupting the morals of American teens and thought no actor should do something like that," he explains. Better prospects failed to materialize, so he began taking college courses in filmmaking, and gravitated to guest shots on shows like Dr. Kildare, My Three Sons, Love, American Style and a year-long run on the soap Never Too Young.
After a fling at painting and sculpting (and several California exhibitions), Dow founded his own construction company in 1974 with a crew of five men. "If you want to be an actor, a job is not always there when you're ready," he observes. "Something has to fill up the empty time." Now, with his So Long, Stanley commitments, he has "uprooted everything": His belongings, in fact, are stored in a family-owned apartment complex in Van Nuys. "I'm not ready to settle down," Dow admits. "It wouldn't be too wishful to say I'd like to work on Broadway someday."
Like his partner, Jerry Mathers surrendered his stardom when Beaver died. He entered high school as a freshman, spent summers touring with a rock band (Beaver and the Trappers), and eventually enlisted in the Air Force for a six-year hitch during the Vietnam war. "I spent a lot of my time in bars playing pool," he notes. (The rumor, amplified by Shelley Winters on the Tonight show, that he was killed in action was greatly exaggerated; he never even got overseas.) After a belated degree in philosophy from Berkeley, Mathers bought a home in Topanga Canyon and mixed banking, and then real estate, with TV bit parts and acting on the dinner-theater circuit.
In the mid-'70s colleges began inviting the Brothers Cleaver to lecture on '50s TV and, buoyed by their reception, they signed two years ago to appear in a Kansas City revival of the old comedy Boeing-Boeing. Their eight-week run was sold out within hours. "People feel like they've grown up with us," says Mathers. "Everyone thinks we're members of their family."
While out of the klieg lights, both got married, then divorced—Mathers after six years, Dow after nine years and a son, Christopher, 7 ("He's the neatest thing that ever happened in my life"). Dow's brown hair is now bushy and streaked with gray, but the old half-smile, half-smirk remains, and fans still recognize him on the street. Mathers retains his "Beaver" look of impishness but has added an extra chin and an early paunch. Their friendship has endured. "There are never any jealousies between us, because we're both very laid-back people," says Mathers. "We're good friends because our time off the stage is private, and we both respect that space."
Next week they begin a nine-week run at a dinner theater in San Clemente, Calif. All the while Leave It to Beaver reruns are spawning a new generation of fans. The sugary sitcom still plays in some 20 countries besides the U.S., and is dubbed in 15 different languages. If their current road show "isn't Shakespeare," as Mathers admits, no matter. "We knew there was a huge Beaver market out there; it was just a matter of finding it and tapping it."