Leave It to Beaver
Later photo of Jerry Mathers
Leave It to Beaver was an influential situation comedy that popularized the ideal of a nuclear family. It ran on American television and portrayed "a Utopian vision of a perfect American family, living in the perfect American suburb." The weekly program ran from 1957 to 1963; it began on CBS on October 4, 1957; the next season it moved to ABC. Revue Studios (the forerunner of what is now Universal Television) produced the show in association with Gomalco Productions during its first four seasons, then with Kayro Productions in the remaining two seasons. Syndicated reruns of the show have been popular and continue to the present day, and currently air on classic TV network MeTV. The 234 half-hour episodes are available on DVD.
It has become an icon of stable family life in a nuclear family (comprising only the parents and their children) and moral decision-making in a world of small human foibles and no great issues.
The plot revolved around the life of Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver, played by Jerry Mathers (born 1948), a curious and frequently naïve pre-adolescent boy living in an upscale, middle-class neighborhood in the innocent years of the 1950s. The setting is the fictitious town of Mayfield, state not identified. The Beaver's teen-age brother, Wally, was played by Tony Dow; his father, Ward, by Hugh Beaumont (1909-1982), and his mother, June, by Barbara Billingsley (1915-2010). Eddie Haskell, portrayed by Ken Osmond (1943-2020), was the two-faced teenage conniver who turns choirboy whenever he is in the presence of adults. Television writer Joe Connelly (1918-2003) was the main creator; his 8-year-old son was the inspiration for Beaver, and his 14-year-old son was the model for Wally. The producer was Harry S. Ackerman.
In its "Golden Age," television served as a kind of social training film; sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best, were all prime-time staples that taught Americans newly arrived in the suburbs from city tenements how to act middle-class.
Central to each episode was the interplay between big brother Wally and little Theodore. Their boyish attempts to navigate the social currents of school, girls, and adolescence were often tinged with frustration and loneliness, and in Beaver's case, often led to him being led into trouble by Eddie Haskell or by friends with less than honorable intentions, which then required the intervention of Wally or their parents. In one early episode, when Beaver is worried that his teacher will hit him over a minor mess-up, Wally corrects him: "Only the coach can hit you."
June Cleaver, a typical housewife and mother, remained calm amid household tumult, providing crucial guidance to her sons while shielding them from nefarious outside influences with a matronly force of will. Her protection was frequently needed against the pernicious intrigues of Eddie Haskell. He engaged in impulsive, selfish, disruptive, and malevolent schemes, almost evil personified. For crafty Eddie, each day was one more step toward the twilight of the adults, which would herald his ascension to neighborhood ruler.
The father Ward Cleaver was a Solomon-like figure of quiet dignity who dispensed parental justice tempered with understanding. Perceptive viewers knew his furrowed brow and clenched jaw were hints of serious inner turmoil, reminiscent of the anger toward society and unfulfilled economic dreams that tormented Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, the classic 1949 play about dysfunctional families.
A comparison of how children interact with their brothers and sisters on such 1950s situation comedy television programs as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best with those on such 1980s programs as The Cosby Show and Family Ties found that children interacted more positively in the early period but were important and central - if more conflictual - to the main story action in the 1980s.
A reunion TV movie, Still the Beaver, aired on CBS on March 19, 1983 and featured most of the surviving cast members from the original series (except Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver; Beaumont died in 1982, while Ward is mentioned in the movie as having died in 1977). This was followed by a sequel series (also called Still the Beaver), which debuted on the Disney Channel in 1984 and ran for one season there, then moved to first-run syndication under a new title, The New Leave It to Beaver, for three more seasons from 1986 to 1989, with production handled by Telvan Productions and Universal TV.
- Kassel, Michael B. "Mass Culture, History and Memory and the Image of the American Family," PdD dissertation, Michigan State U. 2005 65(9): 3537-A. DA3146050 613p.
- Mathers, Jerry. And Jerry Mathers as "The Beaver," (1998), memoir.
- Shaffer, Jeffrey. "Epic Beaver Cleaver", Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 1999, Vol. 91, Issue 128
- Mary Strom Larson, "Sibling Interactions in 1950s Versus 1980s Sitcoms: A Comparison," Journalism Quarterly 1991 68(3): 381-387