Tony Dow, all-American Wally in ‘Leave It to Beaver’, dies aged 77

Tony Dow, the actor who endeared himself to millions of TV viewers as Wally Cleaver, the all-American big brother in the wholesome sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” died July 27 at his home in Topanga, California. He was 77.

The cause was complications from liver cancer, said his manager, Frank Bilotta. The management team of Mr. Dow incorrectly announced his death a day earlier, based on false family information.

“Leave It to Beaver,” broadcast from 1957 to 1963, portrayed an idyllic post-war suburban American household and became a cultural touchstone of the baby boom generation. Hugh Beaumont was the handsome, ever-patient father, Ward Cleaver, and Barbara Billingsley played the glamorous and understanding matriarch June, who vacuumed in high heels and always tucked her boys into their beds.

Cast as the adorable title character — the ebullient, freckle-faced Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver — was Jerry Mathers, who was 8 when the show started. Mr. Dow, who was 12, played the good-natured and athletic eldest son, Wally, who developed an interest in girls. Ken Osmond had a memorable recurring role as Wally’s insincere boyfriend Eddie, who is always kissing the adults.

The sitcom started on CBS but appeared in third place for most of its run on the ABC network and was never a major ratings success. But thanks to its soft, wry humor and an appealing ensemble cast, it thrived in syndication for much longer than the more popular family sitcoms of the era, including “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show.” “. ‘, noted TV scientist Robert Thompson.

With his light brown hair, electric blue eyes and the athletic build of a champion diver – which he was before he entered the show – Mr. Dow promoted as a teenage heartthrob and received over 1,000 fan letters a week at the height of the sitcom. Years later, Mathers recalled that Mr. Dow was much like his “cool” character: gentle, gentle, and possessed of gymnastics skills which he demonstrated by walking up and down stairs on his hands.

Discovering that options for a former child actor were limited, Mr. Dow made his living on the dinner-theatre circuit in the 1970s. A producer who edited the swinging bachelorette air “Boeing, Boeing” in Kansas City, Mo., got the idea to make Mr. Dow and Mathers reunite. To their horror, they met a packed and wildly enthusiastic audience for weeks.

The two actors toured for over a year in another romp, “So Long, Stanley!”, before Hollywood producers hired them and other surviving members of the original “Leave It to Beaver” cast—Beaumont had died in 1982—for a CBS TV movie reunion, “Still the Beaver” (1983).

Wally was now a successful lawyer, Beaver was unemployed, divorced and trying to cope with his own mischievous sons, and June still gave useful household advice. The program was a huge success, spawning two sitcoms, most notably “The New Leave It to Beaver” on Ted Turner’s super station, WTBS, from 1986 to 1989.

Many critics compared watching the “Beaver” revivals to entering a time warp. But Mr. Dow defended the enduring appeal of the idealized Cleavers amid a rapidly changing TV culture.

“When I see a show about drugs, it can be an interesting story and I can join in, but it doesn’t have the same kind of identification as when Beaver took his father’s electric drill and made a hole in the garage door,” Mr. Dow said. the Houston Chronicle in 1988. “These kinds of stories shape real life, growing from childhood to adulthood. People say the show is milk and cookies, but I disagree. I think it’s the essence of growing up.”

Anthony Lee Dow was born in Hollywood on April 13, 1945 and grew up in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles. His mother was a former Mack Sennett “Bathing Beauty” who became a body double for silent movie star Clara Bow and, briefly, a stuntwoman in westerns. His father designed, built and renovated houses.

Mr. Dow said he grew up with no particular interest in show business, instead focusing on athletics. He was a trampoline as well as a swimmer and a Junior Olympic and Western American diving champion. In 1956, when he was 11, he was asked by a lifeguard, an elderly man with acting ambitions, to audition with him for a family adventure TV show called “Johnny Wildlife.”

“He thought that would help him and me get the job as I would be playing his son,” Mr Dow told the New York Daily News. “He didn’t get the part, but I did.” The pilot didn’t sell and Mr. Dow soon returned to the swimming life, until the following year, when the producers of “Leave It to Beaver” started looking for a new Wally.

The pilot child actor ‘Beaver’ had an unfortunate growth spurt and one of the producers of ‘Johnny Wildlife’ recommended Mr. Dow as a replacement.

After production of “Leave It to Beaver” ended, Mr. Dow painting and psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, he played dramatic and comedic guest roles in several TV series and appeared on a teen soap opera called “Never Too Jong.” But after joining the National Guard in the mid-1960s, his career stalled. Not knowing when he might be ordered to report for active duty, it was nearly impossible to make action commitments.

Referring to a popular police show, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I did an ‘Adam-12’ — I think because I was the only actor in town with short hair at the time.”

For years he lived on a boat, made sculpture and subsisted on income that he earned mainly from running a construction company. Despite the perpetual airplay of “Leave It to Beaver”, Mr. Dow not rich off the show. Due to a contract stipulation, he only received residual payments for four years after the sitcom went into syndication.

Beginning in his twenties, he said, he began a long and gradual descent into clinical depression. “I’d say legacy has more to do with it than acting,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It was a disease that was common on my mother’s side of the family. But ‘Leave It to Beaver’ certainly had something to do with it. It certainly had something to do with raising your expectations and establishing certain criteria that you would expect to continue in life.”

Attempts to return to acting only exacerbated his gloomy moods. He had played murderers, single fathers and cops on other shows, but casting agents couldn’t overcome their perception of him as a pure and serious Wally. The fact that so few people spoke openly about depression made his personal struggles more difficult, he said, and for years he couldn’t find ways to deal with what he called a “self-absorbing sense of worthlessness, of hopelessness.”

He was approaching 40 before starting to stabilize, thanks to what he called a major improvement in available drug treatments. In frequent speeches on mental health, Mr. Dow noted that he was “just one of the millions” who suffer from depression. “If Wally Cleaver can be depressed,” he said, “anyone can be.”

Turning away from acting to focus on other art forms also helped. He had modest success as a sculptor, with work appearing in galleries and international exhibitions. Beginning with “The New Leave It to Beaver” in 1988, Mr. Dow also began a career as a television director, and his credits include episodes of “Babylon 5” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”.

His first marriage, to Carol Marlow, ended in divorce. In 1980, he married Lauren Shulkind, whom he met while she was working for an advertising agency and looking for an “all-American guy” to cast in a McDonald’s commercial. In addition to his wife, there are also a son from his first marriage, Christopher; a brother; and a granddaughter.

In interviews, Mathers said that a lot of Mr. Dow in Wally was that the character was less of a performance than a reflection. He was in every way a restrained personality in a profession full of boasters.

“I could never understand the reaction Jerry or I would get from people,” Mr. Dow told the Kansas City Star in 2003. “Then one time I was on a plane and I walked past this guy, and he looked very familiar to me. I asked a flight attendant, ‘Who is that guy?’ And she said, “Oh, that’s… [Harlem Globetrotter] Skylark Citroen.’ And the biggest smile appeared on my face.

“Suddenly I realized what it is,” he continued. “I mean, I don’t know what it is, but it happened to me. I just got that warm feeling and smiled and thought, ‘You know, that’s really cool.’ ”

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