Question: Help me, Televisionary. You're my only hope. I bet a friend on how Beaver Cleaver got his nickname. I say it's because he looked like a beaver. My friend says no way. Following the official Televisionary rule, I'll tell you that the loser has to pay for a pair of Tigers tickets (no jokes) and doesn't even have to take the loser. Who's right?
Televisionary: Jokes? You mean like saying that the real winner is the guy who doesn't have to actually sit through a Tigers game? Perish the thought, my friend. I'm a Phillies fan from way back, so despite the fact that their bullpen is finally earning their pay and winning a couple, I'd be the last one to mock a losing team. Besides, a bad team means better seats and less competition for beer.
So it's with great sadness that I tell you, a fellow losing-team fan, that your pal's right. When Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver (Jerry Mathers) was just a pup in his crib, older brother Wally (Tony Dow), a mere toddler in those days, couldn't get his little mouth around the name Theodore. The best he could do was "Tweeter," which parents Ward (Hugh Beaumont) and June (Barbara Billingsley) morphed into Beaver, and thus a legendary title was born.
Cute story? But of course. Everything about the show was cute, not that there's anything wrong with that. Leave It to Beaver, which creators and former Amos and Andy radio writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher conceived of as a show related through the eyes of children (a new idea when it launched back in October 1957), was a solidly put-together series. Though self-proclaimed cynics took it to task for its baseball-mom-and-apple-pie tone just a few years after it went off the air in 1963, its innocent humor holds up today.
That only makes sense, considering the show was good, clean fun through and through. Whereas a child star interviewed today simply oozes industry savvy, young Master Mathers came off as the same aw-shucks kid as he did when playing the Beav. Matter of fact, that's what got him the part. "We picked Jerry Mathers as The Beaver from over 100 applicants," Mosher told TV Guide in 1958. "Most of the kids came in with typical actor haircuts — some of 'em even marcelled [a curling iron-induced wave in their hair, for all of you unfamiliar with the tonsorial lexicon] — their mothers pushing 'em on. But this one kid showed up in a Cub Scout uniform and kept fidgeting uneasily until I asked him what was wrong. He said gee, he wanted to get to his scout meeting. That ended the audition right there as far as we were concerned. He got to his meeting and he also got the job."
To Mosher and Connelly's credit, they knew enough to pay that kind of attention to their young stars and to their own kids — they had eight between them at the time — who served as the inspiration for many a story. Because one of their kids took a pair of scissors to his own locks, the episode "The Haircut" was born. Mosher's kids clipped out a coupon for a baby alligator and received one from Florida? Bingo — so did the Beaver kids. Even Beaver's way of speaking was written into the script. "It's just a matter of dropping the first syllable of a word," Mosher explained, using the night he asked his son where his books were as an example. "I 'most got 'em," his son replied, leaving Mosher and his wife baffled until the child explained that he said he almost forgot them. "That's the way character is born," Mosher said.
Sure it is, but the actors themselves — child and adult alike — contributed plenty of character, too. An interview with Mathers himself indicated how much the actor and his character had in common; he regaled the article's writer with details on his ant farm, his Little League and Cub Scout activities, his prowess with an air rifle and his rock collection and described working on the series as being "real swell."
And much like mama June was always mild-mannered and slow to blow her stack, Billingsley was an exceedingly forgiving mom, too. "Barbara gives us only one problem," Connelly said in 1961. "In scenes where she's mad at the boys, she's always coming to us with the script and objecting: 'I don't see why June is so mad over what Beaver's done. I certainly wouldn't be.'"
Accordingly, the severity of Beaver's infractions was upped to the level of the truly horrific in such situations. Not only would he break a rule, he'd lie about it. (And you thought Anthony Jr. was bad on The Sopranos?)