Jerry Mathers was a 9-year-old show business veteran when Leave It to Beaver premiered 54 years ago this week, with Mathers playing everyone's favorite little brother, the irrepressible Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver.
His career began quite accidentally in Desmond's department store in Los Angeles, where Mathers, then 2, went shopping with his mother. The store's public relations director approached them and said that another 2-year-old catalog model had just outgrown his clothes. Would Mathers' mother allow him to take his place and maybe appear in an upcoming fashion show? "My mom was still a little hesitant, but when the PR person said we'd pay him and he could keep all the clothes he wore, my mom said I could probably do it." Mathers laughed as he recalled the moment in a telephone interview with the AARP Bulletin.
He soon acted in his first commercial, for PET Milk, dressed in cowboy boots, six-guns, a 10-gallon hat and a diaper. More television work followed, as well as roles in Alfred Hitchcock and Bob Hope movies.
By the time he auditioned for Leave It to Beaver, he had just joined the Cub Scouts and was more intent on not missing a meeting than impressing the show's producers. "There were eight to 12 kids. I happened to be the last one called in. I was kind of antsy," Mathers, now 63, said. "The producers said, 'What's the matter, Jerry?' I said I really had to go because I had a Cub Scout meeting."
The producers called Mathers' mother that night and told her he had the job, explaining that they would rather have a child who wanted to be at a Cub Scout meeting than one who wanted to be an actor.
After the beloved sitcom about the Cleaver family of the fictitious community of Mayfield ended after 234 episodes, Mathers had been working for six years, with just a few weeks off every year. He was by then a teenager who wanted to take a break from acting. He attended a private boys' prep school and threw himself enthusiastically into sports, something his schedule had never allowed before.