Tony Dow, Wally Cleaver on ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ Dies at 77

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He spent 10 seasons as “the perfect big brother” on the show and its sequel, then carved out a career as a TV director.

July 26, 2022 9:18am

Tony Dow, the wholesome actor who portrayed “the perfect big brother” Wally Cleaver on the everlasting TV comedy Leave It to Beaver and its 1980s sequel, has died. He was 77.

Dow died Tuesday morning, his management team announced.

“Tony was a beautiful soul — kind, compassionate, funny and humble,” they wrote on Facebook. “It was truly a joy to just be around him. His gentle voice and unpretentious manner was immediately comforting and you could not help but love him. The world has lost an amazing human being, but we are all richer for the memories that he has left us. From the warm reminiscences of Wally Cleaver to those of us fortunate enough to know him personally – thank you Tony. And thank you for the reflections of a simpler time, the laughter, the friendship and for the feeling that you were a big brother to us all.”

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His wife announced in May that he had cancer.

When Leave it to Beaver debuted on CBS in October 1957, Dow was 12 and Wally was just beginning to take an interest in girls. When the show completed its original run on ABC in June 1963, his character had graduated from Mayfield High School and was headed for college.

In the series’ pilot that was shot in early 1957, Paul Sullivan portrayed Wally opposite Jerry Mathers as his younger brother, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver, while Barbara Billingsley and Max Showalter (aka Casey Adams) played the parents, June and Ward Cleaver.

“CBS said, ‘OK, we’ll take the show, but you have to replace the father and the older son,’” Dow recalled in a 2018 interview. “They had already looked at like 8,000 kids from all over the place and knew everyone who was around.

“From Screen Gems they hired a guy named Harry Ackerman, who was sort of a classic Hollywood producer. He said. ‘Hey, I just worked with a kid, he’s kind of green, you might want to take a look at him.’”

The son of a stuntwoman, Dow was a swimmer and a junior diving champion who had appeared in two pilots for a Tarzan-like show that Ackerman produced but never made it to air. Even though that was his only acting experience, Dow was hired for Leave It to Beaver (as was Hugh Beaumont as his dad).

Created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, Leave It to Beaver was a slice-of-life family comedy that told stories not from the parents’ point-of-view but from the kids’.

Connelly’s son Jay, then 14, was the model for Wally, and his 8-year-old, Ricky, served as the inspiration for Beaver. {That was the nickname of one of Connelly’s shipmates in the U.S. Merchant Marine.)

“Wally is the perfect big brother,” Mathers said in a 2006 interview for the Television Academy Foundation website The Interviews. “He’s the champion basketball player, football player. He does everything right. He’s a huge letterman. He gets A’s on all his papers. Everyone loves him.”

After six seasons and 234 original episodes — incredibly, the show has been in reruns or syndication and never been off the air since it started — Dow, Mathers and Billingsley returned for the 1983 CBS telefilm Still the Beaver, with Wally now working as a lawyer. (Dow and Mathers also appeared on packages of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes that year.)

It all led to a revival series that lasted four seasons (one on the Disney Channel, three on TBS) through 1989.

Dow got his start as a TV director on The New Leave It to Beaver, and he spent the next dozen years helming episodes of other shows like Harry and the HendersonsCoachBabylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and serving as a visual effects supervisor on a 1996 Doctor Who telefilm.

Anthony Lee Dow was born on April 13, 1945, in Los Angeles, the youngest of two sons. His mother was Muriel Montrose, a Mack Sennett “bathing beauty” and then a stuntwoman who often doubled for Clara Bow. His father, John, was a general contractor.

Dow was training to become an Olympic athlete and working out at the Hollywood Athletic Club. “There was a lifeguard there who was an actor,” he said. “He told my mom, ‘I’m going to this interview for a show where they’re looking for a father and son. Can Tony go with me because we kind of look alike?’ He figured maybe that was the only way [he would be hired].

“I ended up getting the part and he didn’t, so that was unfortunate. The show was called Johnny Wildlife, and it would’ve been the first color series on television about a wildlife photographer and his son. It was way ahead of its time.”

Working on Leave It to Beaver “was great,” Dow said. “You always hear stories about all these arguments on set. We never had any of that. They wanted us to be as much of a family as possible, for Jerry and I to very much be like regular kids.

“They actually asked our parents not to let us watch the show on TV so we wouldn’t get a big head. So there are probably some episodes I haven’t seen yet … And there was no swearing on set at all, not even from the crew. They wanted to keep it as family-friendly as possible.”

Following Leave It to Beaver, Dow appeared on such series as Dr. KildareMy Three Sons and Mr. Novakand played a character named Chet on Never Too Young, a Malibu-set soap opera tailored to teens. He also served in the National Guard — though he refused to carry a weapon of any kind — and attended UCLA and Columbia University.

Later, Dow showed up The Mod SquadEmergency!Quincy M.E.Knight RiderCharles in Charge and Murder, She Wrote and portrayed a cop on General Hospital.

After he and Billingsley starred in a production of Come Blow Your Horn, Dow and Mathers spent 17 months in another dinner-theater show called So Long, Stanley before Still the Beaver beckoned.

Dow hoped to direct the 1997 Leave It to Beaver film at Universal; when he was turned down, he said he spurned an offer of $1,200 to make a cameo. “I don’t think they cared if I was in it or not, it was sort of an insult,” he said. (Mathers took a pass as well.)

Survivors include his second wife, Lauren, whom he married in 1980, and his son, Christopher.