As the freckle-faced, ball cap-wearing title character on the blueprint for family sitcoms for decades to come, "Leave it to Beaver" (CBS, ABC, 1957-63), actor Jerry Mathers was forever identified with the ideal of the 1950s American family. It was a time in entertainment history that Mathers would eventually come to grips with - even embrace - after a period of moving away from the indelible, clean-cut image. "Leave it to Beaver" ran for six seasons, making Mathers and his alter-ego a permanent fixture in pop-culture, even before the phrase had come into existence. After the show ended, he would attempt to establish his own identity in a number of ways, including a stint in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War - leading to a persistent rumor of his being killed in action, despite the fact that he had never left the U.S. Eventually, an add-mixture of American nostalgia and his need to make a living would bring Mathers back to the Cleaver household with "Still the Beaver" (Disney Channel, 1984-85) and "The New Leave it to Beaver" (Disney Channel, 1986-89). The middle-aged Mathers settled into a sporadic career comprised of appearances as an interviewee on retrospectives like "Child Stars: Their Story" (A&E, 2000), or the odd dramatic turn in films such as "Better Luck Tomorrow" (2002). However, the staple of Mathers' body of work would continue to be cameo appearances as himself in family-friendly entertainment like "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector" (2006), proving the child actor exemplified a beloved time in American history.
Born on June 2, 1948 in Sioux City, IA to parents Norm and Marilyn, Mathers moved soon thereafter with his family to the budding suburb of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. When still very young, Mathers was shopping with his mother in a department store when a representative suggested that he would be ideal for the cover of a Christmas catalogue. It was not long before the precocious youngster was represented by an agent specializing in children's advertising and programs on the relatively new medium of television. This led to Mathers' first television appearance on the popular early '50s variety show, "NBC All-Star Review," playing a diminutive cowboy to adorable effect. Mathers went on to appear in shows such as "The NBC Colgate Comedy Hour" (1950-55) in a skit opposite Jerry Lewis, and "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," (ABC, 1952-1966) where he played a trick-or-treater visiting the Nelson household. That led to a series of bit parts in movies such as "This is My Love" (1954), a noirish melodrama starring screen siren Linda Darnell. In a more high-profile role, Mathers landed the role of a young boy who discovers the corpse of his mother's ex-husband in Alfred Hitchcock's black comedy, "The Trouble with Harry" (1955). Needless to say, the latter film proceeded to open doors for the young thespian.
Ironically, it was not Mather's recent film experience which won him the role of little Beaver Cleaver - it was the Boy Scout uniform he unintentionally wore to the audition. Producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher were convinced he would be a more natural fit for the character than the other more studied performers, and that he would mesh with their vision of a show which would eschew scene-stealing cute kids in favor of a more realistic "warts and all" depiction of the wonders and blunders of youth. Mathers shared the screen with Hugh Beaumont, (Ward Cleaver), Barbara Billingsly (June) and Tony Dow (older brother Wally). On the show, the name "Beaver" originated with Wally's childhood mispronunciation of "Theodore" - in reality it originated with a war buddy of Connelly who had been saddled with the nickname. Although "Leave it to Beaver" (CBS/ABC, 1957-1963) was not the breakout success that its eventual popularity would suggest, the show would be picked up from CBS by ABC in its second season. Despite a rough start, the series nonetheless managed to run for a respectable six seasons. Loyal viewers watched Mathers grow up from an innocent, talkative child to an awkward teenager and the show drew praise for featuring storylines that reflected the unavoidable fact that its actors were hitting puberty.
Even as his brother Jimmy and his sister Suzie had burgeoning acting careers of their own, the high school-bound Mathers began to develop other interests, including sports and music. After "Beaver" drew to an end, Mathers did make some guest appearances on shows like "My Three Sons" (ABC, 1960-1972), "Lassie" (CBS, 1954-1974) and a third-season episode of "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) entitled, "The Great Escape," in which he played a stage doorman. But for the most part, his interest in acting waned. Around this time, he formed a rock band called Beaver and the Trappers, along with former co-star Richard Correll, who played Richard on "Beaver." He also appeared in a daytime episode of "The Dating Game" (ABC, 1965-1986). Gradually, Mathers' focus began to shift to outdoor activities such as hunting, and a desire to follow in his father's footsteps and join the military. Before graduation, Mathers was already part of the Air Force Reserve, intent on becoming a U.S. Marine, but he was told that he would be turned down for service in Vietnam due to his celebrity status; if he were to be injured or mortally wounded, the publicity would hurt morale. Undaunted, Mathers enlisted in the Air National Guard, but despite his stationing stateside, rumors spread that he had not only gone to Vietnam, but that he had been killed there. The rumors grew to such outrageous proportions that when actress Shelley Winters appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," (NBC, 1962-1992) she declared Mathers a casualty. So widespread was the misunderstanding that co-star Tony Dow sent flowers to Mathers' parents, even though news services quickly corrected the falsehood.
Mathers went on to attend the University of California, Berkeley, and afterward left acting altogether to enter into the banking world as a loan officer. But the call to perform came again in the mid-1970s, when he joined Dow for a series of dinner theater shows - acting in the plays "Boeing, Boeing" and "So Long, Stanley" - after a planned "Beaver" reunion show failed to come together. There were the odd invitations to appear on a series, as was the case when Mathers had a guest spot on the fledgling late night comedy show "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) during its legendary first season, but by and large he remained out of the spotlight. However, as nostalgia for the show and all things 1950s began to build, Mathers began making more public appearances, even being named honorary Mayor of Universal City in L.A. He also kept busy with some work as a disc jockey in Anaheim, CA. Eventually, Mathers reunited with the rest of his co-stars for the original television movie of the week, "Still the Beaver" (CBS, 1983). With clips from the original show interspersed into a story about an adult Beaver Cleaver, a newly divorced father returning home after years away, the show was a modest ratings hit, despite the notable absence of the late patriarch, Hugh Beaumont. The movie was initially spun off into its own series, "Still the Beaver" (Disney Channel, 1984-85), later altering its name to "The New Leave it to Beaver" (Disney Channel, 1986-89), with Mathers reprising his iconic role for its entire run.
Afterward, Mathers career slowed down once again, as he scored a handful of bit parts in films such as the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello revival "Back to the Beach" (1987), and the cheapo erotic thriller "Sexual Malice" (1994) in a cameo as a police sergeant. He also picked up guest spots on shows like "Married: With Children," (Fox, 1987-1997) playing himself, and "Parker Lewis Can't Lose," (Fox, 1990-93), as well as "Diagnosis Murder" (CBS, 1993-2001). Always happy to make an TV appearance, Mathers was a celebrity contestant on "The Weakest Link: TV Child Stars Edition" (NBC, 2001-03) and sat in as a guest on several occasions with the suspendered interlocutor Larry King, on "Larry King Live" (CNN, 1985-2010). There were the random dramatic roles from time to time, such as Mather's turn as a biology teacher in the indie crime drama "Better Luck Tomorrow" (2002). He also made regular appearances on the annual TV Land Awards (TV Land, 2003- ), including having a featured role in an amusing skit spoofing "Desperate Housewives" in 2005. Mathers also appeared in the barely seen Rodney Dangerfield vehicle "Angels with Angles" (2005), as well as in an episode of the short-lived Michael Rapaport family comedy "The War at Home" (FOX, 2005-07). And for the umpteenth time in his career, Mathers once again played himself in the lowbrow comedy, "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector" (2006).