Farewell to Wally!
I know, you Millennials have no idea who the "Beaver" was let alone Wally. And don't get me started on Ed Haskel.
Farewell to the man who played Wally Cleaver, the ideal big brother on a groundbreaking series
By Cory Franklin
Jul 29, 2022 at 10:32 am
Tony Dow, better known as Wally Cleaver, died Wednesday. As the older brother of Beaver Cleaver in the classic sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” Tony played the part to perfection and became an iconic television character in an iconic television family. He was the ideal big brother — not perfect, but someone his little brother loved and could look up to.
“Leave It to Beaver” has played in syndication for more than a half century, attesting to its durability. Despite this, it is frequently misunderstood by some critics, who see it as simply another example of the “white bread” 1950s.
The series took place at the intersection of the Cold War with the high point of Henry Luce’s American Century. The first episode aired the day the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957. The last episode aired the same week as John F. Kennedy’s memorable Berlin Wall speech in 1963, less than five months before he was assassinated. Consequently, most people lump “Leave It to Beaver” together with other 1950s suburban family sitcoms like “Father Knows Best,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Make Room for Daddy” and “My Three Sons.”
While it shared the idyllic suburban neighborhood setting with those shows, the similarity ended there. Although more popular, those shows were anodyne because they were written from an adult’s point of view — and for adults. “Leave It to Beaver” was written from the point of view of Wally and Beaver, which gave it a universality and moral center lacking in the other sitcoms.
Tony Dow, Hugh Beaumont, Jerry Mathers and Barbara Billingsley pose in a promotional portrait for the television series "Leave It to Beaver." (CBS Photo Archive)
Except for their parents, Wally and Beaver considered adults enigmas. Neighbors, uncles, aunts, principals, teachers — who could we count on? Some, like their teachers, were with them, most were not. The same was true of kids in the neighborhood, generally opportunists, bullies or weasels — friends but also adversaries.
That suburban neighborhood of “Leave It to Beaver” was more of an alien universe where the boys found themselves stranded, forced to make sense of their surroundings: Which people could we trust? In that respect, rather than a family sitcom, the contemporary show it most resembled was the sci-fi classic, “The Twilight Zone.” As in “Leave It to Beaver,” characters in “The Twilight Zone” were thrust into alien environments struggling to make sense of their surroundings. (In the final season of “Leave It to Beaver,” the writers did an homage episode to “The Twilight Zone” with a reference to Rod Serling.)
Though critics emphasize the 1950s conformity of the show, the Cleaver boys faced countless uncertainties in the midst of affluence, similar to America in the Cold War era. Wally and Beaver’s daily lives were a minefield of potential indignities: punishment by adults and humiliation or double-crossing at the hands of their friends.
“Leave It to Beaver” is not often thought of as a trailblazer, but it was groundbreaking in several areas. Notably, it was the first show to deal with alcoholism from a child’s point of view, a superb episode that tackled the issue in a way that has not been surpassed. The writers, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, always maintained the child’s point of view as the show’s focus. The adult actors, primarily Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley, were spot on and Jerry Mathers, as the Beaver, was as good a child actor as there was in television.
Tony Dow, left, portrayed Wally Cleaver, and Jerry Mathers played the part of Theodore Cleaver in the TV series "Leave It to Beaver," as seen here on April 29, 1958. (CBS Photo Archive)
And then there was Wally. Much like Tony Dow in real life, Wally was everything you could want in a big brother — handsome, intelligent, athletic, modest, respected by boys and popular with girls, but above all loyal to his brother, who had few of Wally’s attributes. Beaver was often jealous of Wally, but Wally never lorded it over his brother — he appreciated and sympathized with Beaver’s dilemma.
Wally loved Beaver and always looked out for him, sometimes even at the expense of his own interests. He had an innate sense of decency and a moral compass for right and wrong, cultivated by his parents. (“Leave It to Beaver” was one of the few sitcoms, then or now, where the parents were not portrayed as buffoons or the butt of jokes from the children.) In short, Wally was the big brother we all wish we had.
It is not surprising that an actor so associated with a single role was stereotyped and found it difficult to find other roles. After “Leave It to Beaver,” Tony Dow had an indifferent acting career. His best role was playing an older Wally Cleaver in “The New Leave It to Beaver,” a moderately successful 1980s update. Naturally, in the sequel Wally grew up to have a stable marriage and successful career, while Beaver lived a shambolic life.
In real life, Tony Dow suffered from depression for a time but recovered and found success at other interests. He had no regrets being associated with the character he was famous for playing.
With the death of Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers is the only surviving main character of “Leave It to Beaver.” The show lives on in reruns, and is worth watching for the wisdom and morality it conveys to a new generation. But we must bid a sad farewell to Wally Cleaver, the best big brother in television history.
Dr. Cory Franklin is a retired intensive care physician.