Most folks probably know Jerry Mathers for his iconic role as the titular role of Theodore ‘The Beaver’ Cleaver on the iconic American sitcom Leave it Beaver which ran from 1957 to 1963 before entering into syndication.
The Cleaver family, which consisted of June and Ward Cleaver; Portrayed respectively by Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as the show’s parental figures. And Tony Dow as Beaver’s older brother Wally; became synonymous with the idealized image of the American suburban family in the mid-20th century.
The show was the creation of co-writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher; who modeled the show’s characters, conversations, and plot lines after personal experiences from their own childhoods as well as those of their children. The series unique for being the first primetime sitcom to be written from the point of view of a child. It gave audiences an intimate look into middle-class American boyhood. And Jerry Mathers was the perfect casting choice to portray the show’s youthful lead. But of course, the show eventually came to an end after being on the air for six 39-week seasons. And Mathers did what any other child would do in his shoes– he grew up.
While Leave it to Beaver never really delved into serious adult subject matter. Mather’s would eventually have to face the realities of adulthood. Join us as we discuss one of the most serious issues that he had to face head-on some thirty years after Leave it to Beaver wrapped up production. But first, let’s take a look at Jerry’s life before and after becoming a household name.
The Making Of A Child Star
Jerry Mathers was born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1948. His father was a high school principal; And he grew up in the San Fernando Valley area of LA after his family relocated shortly after he was born. Mathers has three siblings; two brothers, including the Hollywood cinematographer and director of photography Jimmy Mathers, and one sister.
Mathers career began when he’s just two years old when selected to appear as a child model for an advertisement for a department store. Not long after that, he appeared in an ad for PET Milk alongside the vaudeville comic Ed Wynn.
In time, he landed early roles in films such as 1954s This is My Love and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 black comedy The Trouble with Harry; in which he portrayed the son of Shirley MacLaine, who finds a corpse in the woods.
Mathers reportedly landed his career-defining role of ‘The Beaver’ after telling the show’s production team that he would rather be at a Cub Scout meeting than auditioning for the role. The producers found Mather’s innocent honesty to be so endearing that it made him perfect for the role.
Mathers went on to play The Beaver for six years, appearing in every episode of the program. He also made history when he became the first child actor to cut a deal to get a percentage of the show’s merchandising revenue. That landmark deal continues to be profitable for him to this day. Seeing as how Leave it to Beaver still generates revenue with reruns and memorabilia sales even after all these years.
Mathers briefly dabbled in a music career in 1962 when he recorded two songs released on a 45 rpm vinyl record. In high school, he’s also for a time in a band called Beaver and the Trappers. But needless to say, he eventually gave up on his dreams of becoming a musical star.
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Jerry Mather’s Life After ‘Beaver’
After Leave it to Beaver wrapped up in 1963, Mather’s retired from acting to instead focus on his education. He attended Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California; before enlisting in the United States Air Force Reserve in 1966 shortly after graduating.
While he never saw any action in the military and stationed in the US throughout his stint in the force. A rumor began to circulate in 1969 that he had killed in the Vietnam War. Fortunately, this rumor completely unfounded, and it’s origins remain unclear. He later poked fun at this baseless claim in 1980 when he and Tony Dow appeared alongside Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment.
After being discharged from the military, Mathers majored in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. And graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. While in college, Mathers met his first wife, Diana Platt. The couple married in 1974, but they ended up divorcing in 1981.
After earning his degree, Mathers took a job working as a loan officer at a bank before taking his savings from his acting career to kickstart his career in real estate development.
In 1978, Mathers decided to take another stab at acting. That year, he and his former Leave it to Beaver co-star Tony Dow starred in a comedy play called Boeing, Boeing. Which ran for four weeks in Kansas City, Missouri. Mather’s and Dow then hit the road together touring the dinner theater circuit, appearing in a production of a play called So Long, Stanley. During that 18-month tour, Mathers met his second wife, Rhonda Gehring, and they ended up having three children together but divorced in 1997.
After briefly working as a radio DJ in Anaheim, California, Mather’s reprised his role as The Beaver in 1983 for the television reunion movie Still the Beaver. Which featured the bulk of the original show’s cast. The made-for-TV film so successful that it spawned a sequel series of the same name; which aired on the Disney Channel starting in 1984 before picked up by TBS and broadcast syndication. After making that jump, it’s given a new name; The New Leave it to Beaver. That show wrapped up in 1989 after four seasons.
In the 90s, Mathers guest-starred in shows like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Diagnosis Murder, and Vengeance Unlimited. In 1998 he portrayed himself in Married….with Children. That same year, he published his memoir And Jerry Mathers as The Beaver.
In 2007, Mathers made his Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning musical Hairspray in the production’s starring role of Wilbur Turnblad. Since then, he hasn’t done much in the line of acting. But in 2018 and 2019, he is promoting classic television shows, including Leave it to Beaver, on the MeTV network.
Mathers married his third wife, Teresa Modnick, in 2011, and they just recently celebrated their 10-year anniversary.
Jerry Mather’s Life-Changing Diagnosis
In 1996, Jerry Mathers diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. In 1997, he received some very grim news from his doctor when he went in for his yearly checkup. The message was clear, if he didn’t alter his lifestyle and diet to address his diabetes. He would likely only have three to five years to live.
In 2017, Mathers told Fox News that he was ‘living the good life’ at the time when his doctor informed him of his dire prognosis. He was operating a side business as a caterer; And was providing his services on a ton of motion picture and television sets feeding 100-200 crew members at a time. Because of his line of work, he’s naturally surrounded by food all of the time – and Mathers absolutely loves to cook. Besides acting and working in film production, the culinary arts happen to be one of his biggest passions.
Working as a Hollywood caterer involved sitting down and eating meals with production personnel, sometimes up to 6 times a day. Because of this, he started packing on the pounds and quickly became quite unhealthy. But it didn’t seem to matter to him at the time because not only was he making a lot of money doing what he loved, but on top of that. The majority of people that he surrounded himself with were also as overweight – if not more so – than he was. So, his unhealthy lifestyle had essentially become normalized, if not incentivized.
But there is something about being told that you’re going to die that motivates people to make significant life changes. So, Mathers did the sensible thing and sold his catering business and went on a strict diet. He also started exercising regularly, walking six to eight miles a day.
Some 20 years later, when Mathers did that interview with Fox; he proudly shared that he’s then only considered to be pre-diabetic and no longer at risk of imminent death. But even though he successfully made the lifestyle and diet changes to ward of the grim reaper. He admitted making those changes was pretty difficult.
One of the biggest challenges was keeping his diet whenever he would go out to eat. Mathers explained that sticking to his guns and not making comprises was a daily struggle. Sure, he could always cheat a little and treat himself if he really wanted to. But then he would have to work extra hard to burn off those calories and not put on more weight. So, it hardly even seemed worth it.
Mathers also made it clear that he wasn’t ‘cured’ by any means. The changes that he made and the risk factors that he had to contend with weren’t just things that were temporary. He would have to deal with these issues for the rest of his life.
To help him keep on the straight and narrow path, Mathers has since committed himself to educating the public on diabetes. If he could help save the lives of his fans, then perhaps he could also save himself. Today, Mathers leads lectures across the nation to warn those willing to hear him out about the dangers of the disease and what they can do to prevent it.
At 73, Jerry Mathers appears to still be doing quite well in regards to his health. Thanks to those royalties from Leave it to Beaver that he still receives to his day and his various other ventures. His net worth is estimated somewhere around $3 million. Which isn’t too shabby considering how he hasn’t really been in the spotlight in recent years besides those MeTV promos. It’s also wonderful to see that he has taken his health so seriously and has managed to defy his doctor’s expectations.
Did you know that Jerry Mathers was once only given 3 to 5 years to live? And were you aware that he has since become such a fierce advocate for Diabetes awareness? Feel free to share your thoughts on this subject in the comments section below.
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