Tony Dow, the actor who endeared himself to millions of TV viewers as Wally Cleaver, the all-American big brother on the wholesome sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” died July 27 at his home in Topanga, Calif. He was 77.
“Leave It to Beaver,” airing from 1957 to 1963, depicted an idyllic suburban postwar 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 exuberant, freckle-faced Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver — was Jerry Mathers, who was 8 when the show began. Mr. Dow, who was 12, played the good-natured and athletic older son, Wally, who was developing an interest in girls. Ken Osmond had a memorable, recurring role as Wally’s insincere friend Eddie, who is always kissing up to the adults.
The sitcom began on CBS but appeared for most of its run on the third-place ABC network and never was a big ratings success. But thanks to its gentle, wry humor and an appealing ensemble cast, it thrived in syndication far longer than more popular family sitcoms of that era, including “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show,” TV scholar Robert Thompson has noted.
With his light-brown hair, electric-blue eyes and the athletic build of a championship diver — which he was before joining the show — Mr. Dow was promoted as a teen heartthrob and received more than 1,000 fan letters a week at the sitcom’s peak. Years later, Mathers recalled Mr. Dow was much like his “cool” character: soft-spoken, suave and possessed of gymnastics skills that he showed off by walking up and down a flight of stairs on his hands.
Finding that options for a former child actor were limited, Mr. Dow was making a living on the dinner-theater circuit in the 1970s. One producer, mounting a Kansas City, Mo., production of the swinging-bachelor farce “Boeing, Boeing,” had the idea of reuniting Mr. Dow and Mathers. To their shock, they met with packed and wildly enthusiastic audiences for weeks.
The two actors toured in another romp, “So Long, Stanley!,” for more than a year 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 was still dispensing helpful household advice. The program was a ratings smash and spawned two sitcoms, notably “The New Leave It to Beaver” on Ted Turner’s superstation, WTBS, from 1986 to 1989.
Many critics likened 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 get involved, 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 told the Houston Chronicle in 1988. “Those kind of stories are what make up real life, and growing up from child 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 area of Los Angeles. His mother was a onetime 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 remodeled houses.
Mr. Dow said he grew up with no particular interest in show business, focusing instead on athletics. He was a trampolinist as well as a swimmer and a Junior Olympic and Western states diving champion. In 1956, when he was 11, he was asked by a lifeguard, an older guy 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 since I was supposed to play his son,” Mr. Dow told the New York Daily News. “He didn’t get the role, but I did.” The pilot didn’t sell, and Mr. Dow was soon back to the swimming life, until the next year, when the producers of “Leave It to Beaver” came looking for a new Wally.
The child actor from the “Beaver” pilot 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 studied painting and psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, played dramatic and comedic guest parts on various TV series, and appeared on a daytime teenage soap opera called “Never Too Young.” But after he joined the National Guard in the mid-1960s, he said, his career stalled. Not knowing when he might be ordered to report for active duty made it almost impossible to make acting commitments.
Referring to a popular police show, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I did one ‘Adam-12’ — I think because I was the only actor in town at that time with short hair.”
For years, he lived on a boat, made sculpture and lived on income earned primarily by running a construction business. Despite the perpetual airplay of “Leave It to Beaver,” Mr. Dow did not grow wealthy from the show. Because of a contract stipulation, he received residual payments for only four years after the sitcom went into syndication.
Beginning in his 20s, he said, he began a long and gradual descent into clinical depression. “I’d say inheritance had more to do with it than acting,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It was an illness prevalent on my mother’s side of the family. But certainly ‘Leave It to Beaver’ had something to do with it. Certainly it had something to do with raising one’s expectations and establishing a certain criteria that you would expect to continue in life.”
Attempts to get back into acting only exacerbated his dark moods. He had played killers, single fathers and lawmen on other shows, but casting agents could not overcome their perception of him as clean-cut and earnest Wally. That so few people talked openly of depression complicated his private struggle, he said, and for years, he could not find ways to manage what he called a “self-absorbing feeling of worthlessness, of hopelessness.”
He was nearing 40 before he began 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 millions” who have depression. “If Wally Cleaver can be depressed,” he said, “anybody 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. Starting with “The New Leave It to Beaver” in 1988, Mr. Dow also began a career as a TV director, and his credits included 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 when she was working for an advertising firm and looking for an “all-American guy” to cast in a McDonald’s commercial. In addition to his wife, survivors include a son from his first marriage, Christopher; a brother; and a granddaughter.
In interviews, Mathers said there was a great deal of Mr. Dow in Wally, that the character was less a performance than a reflection. He was, by all accounts, an understated personality in a profession full of showoffs.
“I could never understand the reaction that Jerry or I would get from people,” Mr. Dow told the Kansas City Star in 2003. “Then I was on a plane once and I walked by this guy, and he looked really familiar to me. I asked a stewardess, ‘Who’s that guy?’ And she said, ‘Oh, that’s [Harlem Globetrotter] Meadowlark Lemon.’ And the biggest smile came across my face.
“All of a sudden 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.’ ”