Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Talk With Tony Dow

Originally Presented in Slightly Different Form at Booksteve's Library in 2011.

Premiering on CBS in 1957, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER didn’t really seem like anything special at the time. It was created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher who had previously written for the long-popular AMOS ‘N’ ANDY show on radio and TV and would later go on to create THE MUNSTERS. At the time that BEAVER arrived, it seemed to be just another sitcom about a family. The difference was that this one, unlike say FATHER KNOWS BEST or MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, was told mostly from the perspective of the kids, the two brothers. As fifties comedy series go, it was also a little more realistic and even serious in its own way.

Never the huge ratings earner one might think, it was only over time and endless reruns that LEAVE IT TO BEAVER came to represent the iconic, idealized fifties suburban American family. Character actor Hugh Beaumont was perfectly cast as the stern but understanding father and Barbara Billingsley equally so as the concerned, loving mother. Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver was young Jerry Mathers (who had already worked with Hitchcock) and Tony Dow was the older son, Wally Cleaver. The series came to an end in 1963 after six seasons of gently funny episodes that have become familiar to whole new generations ever since.

As I was born in 1959, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER was probably my very first favorite sitcom and I recall watching it literally all my life. Even after it finished its original primetime run, it was on TV in the afternoons for years and then later in syndication. Today’s fans, of course, are still discovering BEAVER via DVD.

Last year, thanks to Martin Grams and in anticipation of his appearance at Martin's MID-ATLANTIC NOSTALGIA CONVENTION, I had the opportunity to speak via email with Tony Dow who played Beaver’s older but not always wiser brother, Wally.

Tony’s mother had actually been in show business many years prior to her son’s success. “My mom was one of the first stunt women in Hollywood and the ‘It’ girl, Clara Bow’s, double. She didn’t plan on a career in movies. When she was 17 or 18 years old she got a job at Mack Sennett’s studio as a ‘Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty’ which lead to minor parts in ‘Keystone Cops’ movies and stunts, etc. She met my dad when she was in her early twenties and gave up her career, if you could call it that.”

While one might think that his mother's involvement in the business had spurred his own interests in show biz, that was not really the case. In fact, Tony had been involved in swimming and diving and was associated with the Junior Olympics. “My mom,” he says, “was in her forties when I came along and long over her quick venture into the movie business.

I suppose like any mother, when the opportunity came along she was happy and proud at the chance for her son to work on TV.”

“It changed the dynamic of our family,” he continued. “She had to accompany me to the studio every day and put in what amounted to a ten or eleven hour day. It was probably tough on my dad also to have a son making money and taking his wife away. I was never aware of any issues. I had a great childhood and spent many good times with both mom and dad.”

Tony got the roll of Wally after a casting call to replace the actor who had been in the original pilot (which has recently been seen on TV Land). “The pilot for the show was made in 1956 and sold to CBS on the contingency the father and son would be re-cast. The producers had already seen 5000 or so kids and when Harry Ackerman, who signed on to be the executive producer of the show, suggested me, they called me in. He was the executive producer on another pilot I had

just completed that did not sell. I sort of rode in on the tail end of the process. Jerry and Barbara had done the pilot and were signed on. I believe Hugh was already cast and I was the last piece of the puzzle.”

I asked Tony why he decided to pursue acting rather than his diving. “It wasn’t exactly a decision to pursue one over the other,” he replied. “I continued diving for a couple of years after the show started but I had no idea the show would be as successful as it was or how time consuming it would be.” Looking back on it now with hindsight he adds that if he hadn’t won the role on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, “I don’t think I would have gotten into the entertainment business. I was a swimmer and diver and probably would have continued on with that and knowing what I do now, I might have gone into designing or architecture or ??? Maybe coaching a sport, who knows?”

But he did get the role and as he grew into a teenager, Tony Dow found himself appearing on the covers of teen magazines and eventually Corn Flakes boxes! I asked him if he even liked Corn Flakes. “ Sure... didn’t every kid? (The) teen magazines were OK although most of the articles were pretty dumb. The cereal box was a bit embarrassing.”
After one season on CBS, the series moved to ABC.
Jerry Mathers stated in his autobiography that the move was because the sponsor was offered a better situation for the show. Tony says, “Don’t know. I was twelve or thirteen and not privy to that type of information. Because back then the shows were funded by a sponsor, in our case Remington typewriters, Ralston Purina dog food, and others, maybe they got a better deal and a better time slot at ABC.”

By the time LEAVE IT TO BEAVER ended its original nighttime run, Tony Dow was graduating high school in real life. He moved on to guest roles on other series but I asked him if he kept in touch with any of the BEAVER co-stars. “Barbara and my wife, Lauren, and I have always stayed in touch. As a matter of fact, she and I did a theater show in K.C. where she played my mom in COME BLOW YOUR HORN. Jerry and I had been touring the country doing dinner theater for a couple of years. A number of years before that, Hugh was directing a play out here where the male lead quit and he called me to fill in.”

Not long after the series ended, Tony appeared in several episodes of MR NOVAK, an early example of the kind of “relevant” TV that we saw so much of in the 1970’s. The title character was a high school teacher. On one memorable episode, students engaged in a mock UN conference as a class exercise only to have it become as controversial as the real life Cold War. “I did three episodes of MR NOVAK and I believe that was the one in which Johnny Crawford and I debated some international conflict. I always enjoyed working on the show with Jim Franciscus.” Tony played the US representative and THE RIFLEMAN’s Johnny Crawford was the Soviet ambassador. Tony went into the National Guard soon afterwards. “I was already hit with being stereotyped but always planned to continue acting, hoping to direct and/or produce sometime in the future. I continued my education in those areas.”

One of the funniest films of the seventies was KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and Tony’s cameo made me yell, “Hey, that’s really Wally!” in the crowded theater. Assuming they tried to get Jerry, too, I asked him what happened? “Jerry was supposed to also be in the movie but his wife at the time didn’t think he should do an X rated film. The first I heard about was when I showed up for work and John Landis told me one of the writer/producers was going to fill in. I think it was Jerry Zucker who did a great ‘Beaver.’” The same producers went on to do AIRPLANE so I guess it’s safe to assume that, with Barbara Billingsley so famously in that, they were LEAVE IT TO BEAVER fans. “I guess so. Quite a number of successful comedy writers were brought up watching the show.”

One of his most enjoyable later performances was in a fun 1983 TV movie entitled HIGH SCHOOL, USA. The movie starred Michael J. Fox but featured many nostalgic former teen stars, mostly as faculty members. Dwayne Hickman, Angela Cartwright, David Nelson, Bob Denver and Barry Livingston were just a few. LEAVE IT TO BEAVER veterans Tony Dow, Frank (Lumpy Rutherford) Bank and Ken (Eddie Haskell) Osmond all appeared. I questioned how many of these folks Tony had actually known prior to this picture. Actually, kid actors from the fifties and sixties are sort of a fraternity and we all do know each other. I can’t recall who all was in that show but I do remember having a great experience acting with Michael J. Fox whom I had met for the first time.”

As Tony mentioned earlier, he had long wanted to get into directing. I thought I had read where he started out doing commercials. “No. Although subsequently I have done a number of commercials, promos and PSA’s. Nothing anybody would remember. I studied directing and read many books on the subject. When we started THE NEW LEAVE IT TO BEAVER I was scheduled to do another HIGH SCHOOL USA and during the negotiations I was set to direct shows in the second season. That didn’t happen because Jerry also wanted to direct. Finally, I wrote a show, DRIVER’S ED, that I got to direct. I did seven or eight more episodes and when the show was over I was able to start directing on shows that were produced by people I knew."

Even as he was getting to do what he had long wanted to do, Tony Dow had been dealing with clinical depression for quite awhile before it was even diagnosed as such. “That’s the problem with depression,” he points out. “It was and is still vilified as a weakness. Eventually it became too painful to deal with on my own so I saw a Doc who gave me some insight into the illness. Back then the side effects of the medications were very unpleasant. Today’s choices are vastly improved and are saving many peoples lives.” Tony chose to become an advocate for others dealing with depression and manic depression.

“I saw and understood the issue which was still being swept under the rug. I did a couple of videos explaining my experiences and educating people about the illness and the simple solutions available. I was also able to address a Senate sub-committee on mental illness for the Institute of Mental Health... quite an experience.”

By the 1980’s, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER had been raised to its status as a classic of early television. In keeping with the trend, there was a reunion movie featuring most of the original cast. In this case, the film led to a long-running revival series called STILL THE BEAVER as well, beginning in 1983 and running for 102 episodes. I inquired if it was like going home again or if things had changed so much by then that it was all new. “Both. We had spent so many years together and more recently sharing theater experiences that everyone just fell right back into it. On the other hand, television twenty years later required different programming. Attention spans shortened and the need for more edgy material increased. Jokes, jokes and more jokes, usually unfunny, became the name of the game.”

Although happy to revisit Wally, Mr. Dow continued expanding his horizons by getting involved in doing special visual effects. As unlikely as it sounds at first, Tony Dow was in charge of those for the 1996 DOCTOR WHO TV movie featuring the sole on-screen appearance of the eighth Doctor. “The producer had a friend who was just setting up a new visual effects house and said he could do the show for $250,000. I was the effects producer and doubted he could pull it off and told the producers of my concern. We started shooting in Vancouver without an effects supervisor and the producer’s friend shortly thereafter dropped out. I had been retained in L.A. because the shots were going to be executed here. In a panic they called me up to Vancouver to revise the effects budget. I told them that as written we would need to spend $500,000+ for 150 or so shots. They only wanted to spend $250,000 so I gave them the option of doing 50 shots the standard way with producer approval at every stage or do 85 shots without any supervision other than me. They chose to do the 85 shots.”

With DOCTOR WHO, and later doing SPFX and directing BABYLON 5, gaining him even more geek cred, one might presume Tony Dow to be a sci-fi fan but that’s not the case. “Nope... very little sci-fi experience until I wrote, uncredited, and produced, it’s not my fault, movie ‘remake’ of the 50’s classic IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE for the Sci-Fi Channel. Being involved in the visual effects made me, at the time, one of the few TV directors not bamboozled by the effects companies.

More recently, Tony’s passion has been his sculpting as seen in the video here.

“I’ve been painting and sculpting since my late teens. I had always planned to pursue sculpting seriously after I retired. I had a friend who was a successful sculptor who encouraged me to have my pieces cast in bronze, which I do frequently now.”

“I feel very proud and lucky to have been involved with such a wonderful show that affected so many lives.”

Special thanks to Tony Dow, Lauren Dow and Martin Grams. I think I’m going to go watch a LEAVE IT TO BEAVER episode now.


  1. Love this guy! The Leave it to Beaver show always takes me to a great place!!!

  2. Me too. A very happy memory. I went to school with Jim Mathers in Encino in the 60's... Good times...

  3. It was a great show. Things were so much better back in those days, and Wally was so good looking!!!!