Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow were natural performers, particularly when it came to interpreting their characters on Leave It to Beaver, which first aired on ABC and CBS from 1958 to 1963. With Tony as older brother Wally Cleaver, playing opposite Theodore Cleaver, a.k.a. The Beaver, the two actors truly seemed like the kids next door.
One key to their appeal was the huge assistance they got from the writers. The writers would script out the kids’ lines and then let their own kids rewrite them as kids from that era would actually say them. That gave Wally and the Beaver a freshness and naturalness not found anywhere else on television. Anyone doing research on 1950s slang as used by teenagers should forget watching the darker images and edgier precepts presented in movies like West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause, or The Blackboard Jungle. Instead, watch Leave It to Beaver, and take a quick course in how kids really talked in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Past young viewers at home more easily and instantly identified with Wally and the Beaver, while parents perceived the show through their children’s eyes, too. Mom and Dad may have wished to have offspring as ideal as those portrayed on The Donna Reed Show (the almost too-perfect Mary Stone as played by Shelley Fabares, and her sassy, younger but ultimately wiser brother Jeff Stone, as performed with precision by Paul Petersen). But such was not the case on Beaver.
Larry Mathers and Tony Dow were the “Real Deal” — keeping baby alligators in the toilet tank and hiding their latest misadventures from the prying eyes of Ward and June Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley).
Dow recently explained the events that ultimately led to his casting on Beaver:
"I was a diver and I had a coach named Johnny Reily, who was a nine-times-national diving champion. And we worked out at the Hollywood Athletic Club and there was a lifeguard there named Bill Bryant who was an actor. And one day, he asked my Mom if I’d be interested in auditioning for a TV series pilot [Johnny Wildlife]. She said 'Ok,' and I put on my blue suit and went over to Columbia Studios and he proceeded to go in and meet with [studio executive] Harry Ackerman and I got the part… but I never acted, nor had any aspirations to act."
From there, Ackerman made sure that Dow would find his way to playing opposite Jerry Mathers in Leave It to Beaver.
In July 1986, media historians Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones explained in TV Gold magazine:
"Leave It To Beaver was a monument to an America that we always wanted and never quite reached. The founder of the family, father Ward Cleaver [as played by Hugh Beaumont], was the American of his generation. He had grown up in the poverty-stricken farms of the Depression, had been hardened by that but had been instilled with an unshakable set of values (“Why, when I was a boy, Beaver, we understood the value of a dollar”). He came out of his youth with one dream, which was The Dream of America in those years: to build a materially better life for his children."
Those children, Wally, and the Beaver were played to precision by Dow and Mathers. As Jacobs and Jones further assessed, “Wally was the perfect teenager: a letterman in sports, popular with the girls, his eyes on his future.”
“And Beaver himself…there’s never been a cuter kid.”