Tony Dow, whose role as Wally Cleaver on the sitcom Leave It to Beaver helped create the popular and enduring image of the American teenager in the 1950s and 1960s, died Wednesday. He was 77 years old.
Frank Bilotta, who represented Dow in his work as a sculptor, confirmed his death in an email to The Associated Press.
No reason was given, but Dow was in hospice care and announced in May that he had prostate and gallbladder cancer.
“Although this is a very sad day, I feel comfortable and at peace because he is in a better place,” Christopher, Dow’s son, said in a post on his father’s official Facebook page. “He was the best father anyone could ask for. He was my coach, my mentor, my rational voice, my best friend, my best man at my wedding, and my hero.”
A post on Dow’s Facebook page prematurely reported on Tuesday that he had died, but his wife and management team later deleted the post and clarified that it had been announced in error.
Wally Dow was often annoyed but mainly loving Big Brother who constantly rescued the title character, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver, played by Jerry Mathers, in a show that was synonymous with the good image and wellness of the 1950s American family.
Dow was born and raised in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles — his mother was a stuntwoman who worked as a double for silent film star Clara Bow — but his parents didn’t push him into show business.
He’s done a small stage act and appeared in a pair of pilots. After attending an open call, he got his career-defining turn as Wally.
Dow would play the role for six seasons and more than 200 episodes from 1957 to 1963 in prime time on CBS and ABC, and then for more than 100 episodes in the 1980s on the sequel series compiled.
On the show, Wally, sometimes the center of the plot himself, navigates the worlds of middle school and high school — his two-faced best friend Eddie Haskell at his side — a little more wisely than his little brother. The show’s plots suggested that Wally was constrained by great things—he had stated his desire to become an aeronautical engineer—and tended to find himself in moral dilemmas stemming from his primary goodness.
Dow’s favorite episode was the one in which Father Ward Cleaver, always ready to teach, played by Hugh Beaumont, wants his children to know what his childhood was like. He takes them out into the wilderness, even though they have what they felt was the stress of working at home.
“The boys didn’t want to go because Zombies From Outer Space were playing in the theater,” Dow said in a 2018 interview with Sidewalks Entertainment at Silicon Valley Comic-Con.
After the trip, at the end of the episode, Ward discovers the boys on a hilltop with binoculars, thinking they’re taking in some nature.
“They were watching zombies from outer space when driving,” Dao said with a laugh.
The show was still popular when it went off air, but it naturally took its course with Wally about to go to college and Beaver heading off to high school.
The death leaves Dow Mathers and Rusty Stevens, who played Beaver’s friend Larry Mondello, as the only surviving member of the show’s primary cast. Beaumont died in 1982. Barbara Billingsley, who played Wally Beaver’s mother, John Cleaver, died in 2010. Ken Osmond, who played Haskell, died in 2020.
Dow would appear as a guest star on other television series throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, including My Three Sons, Dr. Kildare, Adam-12, Emergency, Peg Box and Knight Rider.
He took a break from acting to serve three years in the US National Guard in the late 1960s.
From 1983 to 1989, amid a cultural frenzy for nostalgic television, Dow reprized the role of Wally in The New Leave it to Beaver.
He began writing and directing episodes of that series, and would work as a director on television throughout the 1990s on shows including The New Lassie, Babylon 5, Harry and Hendersonsand Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
At a time when such disclosures were rare, Dow publicized his clinical depression in the 1980s and made self-help videos about accepting and coping with illness.
Besides appearing in later years at pop culture conventions, often alongside Mather, Dow worked as an artist, gaining a reputation as a sculptor.
One of his bronzes was accepted in 2008 at the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a 150-year-old art show held annually at the Louvre.
Dow told the Associated Press in 2012 that his openings brought in the most people eager to rub the beaver’s older brother’s shoulders to see his art.
“I think it’s hard, especially with a picture of Wally, to be taken seriously about anything other than that,” he said, chuckling and shaking his head.
Dow is survived by his 42-year-old wife, Lauren; His son Christopher. daughter-in-law, Melissa; and his brother Dion.
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