Leave It to Beaver

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Leave It to Beaver

Leave It to Beaver was one of a number of family situation comedies that proliferated on the small screen in the 1950s and 1960s. Along with Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver portrayed the trials and tribulations of everyday life in an American suburb. The difference between Leave It to Beaver and the other shows was that it told its stories (all 234 of them) from the point of view of the youngest family member, Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver. Through the eyes of a child, life in the postwar economic boom was simple and sweet. Problems arose, but they were always resolved by a kind and loving family working together.

Leave It to Beaver debuted in the spring of 1957 as a pilot called It's a Small World. When the series premiered in the fall of that year, it starred Jerry Mathers as Beaver, an adorable seven-year-old boy whose actions, no matter how well-intended, always seemed to land him in some kind of hot water. Tony Dow played Wally, Beaver's twelve-year-old brother. Wally was the quintessential all-American boy, a popular athlete with a healthy interest in girls. Barbara Billingsley played mother June, the patient, understanding housewife who seemed to do all of her housework in high heels and pearls. Hugh Beaumont played Ward Cleaver, the wise and patient father who commuted to work in his business suit, but was always home in time for dinner. They were a perfect American family—devoted parents, well-behaved, polite children, and a beautiful home in Mayfield, U.S.A., complete with white picket fence. No one ever really fought. Ward and June were completely supportive of each other and of the boys. The boys learned all of their lessons gently.

One of the most memorable characters that the series spawned was Eddie Haskell, played by Ken Osmond. Eddie was an obsequious weasel. He was a friend of Wally's who feigned respect and admiration when dealing with parents and adults, while behaving like a rat to young Beaver and his friends. He wasn't really smart enough to pull it off though, and most of the adults on the show saw through his ruse. His questionable character was explained by the occasional appearance of his family, which proved that the apple never really fell very far from the tree. Though he was slimy, Eddie never really posed a threat to Wally's good character. Wally and everyone else knew what he was and what motivated him.

Leave It to Beaver is perhaps better remembered by the audiences who saw it as reruns in the 1980s and 1990s than by 1950s/1960s television viewers. Though it did run for five seasons (first on CBS and later on ABC), it was never rated in Nielsen's top 20 for the years it was originally broadcast. Those years belonged to cowboys and pioneers in shows like Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Bonanza, and The Rifleman. In the same way that the television audiences of 1957-63 seemed to be indulging in the nostalgia of the old American west, audiences of the Reagan years seemed to be indulging in the nostalgia of 1950s America. In syndicated reruns, Leave It to Beaver became something of a cult phenomenon. The suburban American life of a nuclear family in the 1950s and early 1960s seen through the eyes of an innocent seemed to strike a chord with Americans in the 1980s.

A testament to its resurgence in popularity, a reunion show was filmed in 1983. Again, it is difficult to deny the irony, as the TV movie Still the Beaver showed viewers an unemployed, nearly divorced 33-year-old Beaver facing the reality of raising two slightly troublesome sons on his own. Wally, though a successful attorney married to his high school sweetheart, had no children and had problems of his own dealing with an unscrupulous contractor named Eddie Haskell. June Cleaver was still around, and still trying to help, but she didn't have the commanding wisdom of the deceased Ward Cleaver, who could make everything right with a few words of advice in the 1950s. An idyllic childhood did not insure that the Cleaver boys would grow up and live unquestionably happy lives. The happy, sun-filled days in Mayfield did not foreshadow June Cleaver's future as a widow, and father didn't know best anymore.

Due to the success of the television movie, in 1985 Disney produced a new series with the same name. In the series, Beaver is divorced and living at home with June and his two sons. In 1986, the series was bought by WTBS and renamed The New Leave It to Beaver. It ran until 1989. In 1997, a major Hollywood bomb of a film based on the original series was released. Beaver apparently was not as appealing in 1997 as in the early 1980s.

—Joyce Linehan

Further Reading:

Applebaum, Irwyn. The World According to Beaver. New York, Bantam, 1984.

Bank, Frank, with Gib Twyman. Call Me Lumpy: My "Leave It to Beaver" Days and Other Wild Hollywood Life. Lenexa, Kansas, Addax Publishing Group, 1997.

Mathers, Jerry, with Herb Fagen. —And Jerry Mathers as "The Beaver." New York, Berkley Boulevard, 1998.