“Leave it to Beaver” is a piece of American culture. It’s been around for over sixty years, still seen daily in reruns on this channel or that network.
But you may not know how groundbreaking that innocent black and white sitcom actually was.
In 1983 Jerry Mathers — The Beaver — was one of the first celebrity interviews I ever did. And he did not disappoint this very happy Baby Boomer.
Jerry Mathers was 35 when I met him. “Leave it to Beaver” had been off the air for twenty years. Mathers was, at that point, very active in doing public appearances, giving folks the chance to get up close and personal with The Beav — although some wanted a little more than Jerry Mathers was able to deliver:
“I’m an individual. I know a lot of people expect me to, you know, come up and be exactly like an eight- or a ten-year-old. And that’s just not me, that’s a character, and if they can’t cope with that. that’s their problem, not mine.”
Jerry Mathers made sure it wasn’t his problem. He took care to make sure he didn’t lose his own identity.
“Any time you take on a character that people remember, it’s a .. they may come up and say, hi Bever or whatever, but there’s always your own identity as an actor, you always keep that. There are very, very few characters — in fact, I can’t think of one — who have ever suffered from that particular phenomenon, where they lose their identity. Maybe Bozo the Clown or somebody like that…:”
Now, little Jerry Mathers may have been too young to realize it at the time, but the TV show in which he was starring was, as it turns out, a valuable U.S. national asset.
“Leave it to Beaver” was filmed during the Cold War years, and it was the first actual situation comedy to go outside the United States. Before that, things like ‘The Untouchables’ and all the westerns .. so the gangsters and the western pictures were all going .. because that’s the thing people would buy in, say, Japan and Europe and Africa. So the writers were very. very conscious that they were presenting an image of the United States to foreign lands that hadn’t seen it before.”
And that’s not the only way “Leave it to Beaver” was making television history:
“The very first show we ever did was banned by the censors. Those were the days, of course, 1957, when even married couples in beds three feet apart. The very first show has the boys getting an alligator, called ‘Captain Jack,’ and they want to hide it from their parents, and they put it in the toilet tank.
“At that time you were not allowed to show bathrooms, let alone toilet tanks, on TV, so it was banned by the censors. But they fought it, and they won, and in fact ‘Leave it to Beaver’ was the first show to show a bathroom on commercial TV.”
Of course, when “Leave it to Beaver” first aired, most Americans had two or three or maybe four channels to choose from for their entertainment. By 1983, Jerry Mathers was among those beginning to lament 500 channels and nothing to watch:
“The problem is that we’re inundated right now with so much commercial television, through the use of the networks, and cable, and of course now the VCRs where you can go out and rent movies of any kind.
“So for the most part you have a much broader screen to view, and I think it’s just like anything else. When there’s only one or two books, and that’s the only thing available to you, you will read them, and no matter what they are, you’re a lot more appreciative. When you walk into a library, and there’s suddenly thousands of books, you become a lot more selective.“
And today we’re more selective than ever — but somehow, when the Cleaver family appears on screen, millions still watch.