Television and film personalities often gain such popularity that they become bigger than the show. Especially characters on TV series running over years and years find their way into audiences’ hearts, and iconic shows of specific eras go on represent more than just entertainment. The yesteryears’ sitcom Leave It to Beaver is one such iconic show from the mid-20th century.
Starring Jerry Mathers as the titular schoolboy Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver, Leave It to Beaver is a sitcom that debuted on October 4th, 1957, and ran for six seasons, covering Beaver’s adventures around home and school. The show, which was originally aired on CBS and then moved to ABC, shot child actor Jerry Mathers to fame over the 80 countries where it was broadcast. Moreover, even after the show ended in 1963, it became something of a global phenomenon with perpetual syndication generating more revenue and bringing in more recognition for Mathers.
Leave It to Beaver came to an end at roughly the same time that America was beginning to go through a difficult time of assassinations, protests, and war. Rumors are quick to catch fire in such times of chaos, especially when they symbolize society’s current degradation. And the story of Jerry Mathers’ passing is the perfect example of the many stories where people didn’t know what to believe.
Fresh from the success of Leave It to Beaver, Mathers was associated with the ideas of innocence and peace, thanks to the show’s concept, and the story that he had died at war shell-shocked Americans. Let’s go over what actually happened at the time and find out whether Jerry ‘Beaver’ Mathers was killed in Vietnam.
Sixteen-year-old Jerry Mathers was famous the world over as Beaver Cleaver, and with a successful career under his belt already, Mathers decided to focus on high school. He took a break from the limelight altogether and led a normal life. In retrospect, this presented an ideal situation for the far-reaching rumors that were common at the time. The boy who was on TV for years had disappeared from the public eye. While this is quite common and nothing to be perturbed about today, it was scary back then, when young men were being drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam.
While rumors were common in those difficult times and are common even today within the entertainment industry, it makes you wonder who starts them. Like in this case, one wonders where the rumor of Mathers’ death gained root. Continue watching to know about one possible source that many claims started the rumor and learn more about what Mathers has been doing over the last couple of decades.
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In 1966, the high schooler Mathers signed up for the United States Air Force Reserve. While he was a celebrity and the news of his enrolment was bound to get to fans sooner or later, it was Mathers’ appearance at the 1967 Emmy’s that made everyone aware of this development. Child actor Angela Cartwright and Mathers presented the Emmy to Gene Kelly at the award show, with Mathers looking strapping in his uniform and shaved head.
Mathers continued in the Reserve, where he was made sergeant, even after high school. Interestingly, Mathers wanted to join the Marines but was told he wouldn’t be sent into the thick of the action because they didn’t want the negative publicity his possible death would bring. So throughput his military career, Mathers never left US soil.
At the end of 1969, rumors of Mathers’ passing in Vietnam caught on. The root of these rumors? A certain Private J. Mathers was killed in Vietnam, and the Associated Press and United Press International mixed up the two Mathers and reported that star of Leave It to Beaver had died. But the ironic part is the wire services never made a mistake. The report of a Seargent Mathers passing clearly listed the name as ‘Sgt. E-5 Steven Mathers’ of the US Army Company B, Second Battalion, twenty-eighth Infantry, First Infantry Division, died on October 26th, 1968. There was no confusion when the wire services reported this – the mix up happened when the newspapers ran the story in 1969.
What ensued was saddening, unexpected, and funny in equal parts. Mathers’ friends, family, and fans had heard the rumor, and those he didn’t know him and his whereabouts closely were mourning. Mathers, on the other hand, was enrolled at Cal-Lutheran in San Fernando, where one morning, he woke up to the news of his death. The story of the actual Sergeant Mathers who had died in Vietnam was all over the newspapers and radio with the name and face of Jerry’ Beaver’ Mathers.
Mathers’ mother started receiving condolence calls, to which she promptly replied that her son was well and happy. She even so far as to clarify that Jerry had never been stationed outside the United States, and thus, of course, he never had seen any action. But rumors have always been easier to start and spread than kill. This was all the more true for the rumor about Mathers’ death since the story spread like wildfire. The American public was shocked to hear of the innocent, cute, and naïve Beaver dying at war. It simply went against the grain.
Mathers’ friend and co-star from Leave It to Beaver, Stephen Talbot, recollects hearing the rumor for the first time and being heartbroken. The two had been close on the show and a little while after, till they went to separate high schools and eventually drifted apart. He didn’t want to believe the news since it was mostly hearsay and not directly from his family and common friends, but then he conceded that there were so much violence and death at the time that it simply wasn’t as shocking anymore.
Talbot even expressed regret at not getting back in touch with Mathers when he saw the Emmy’s and noticed his military uniform. He felt he should have counseled his friend against fighting in the war, especially since he believed the war was unnecessary and unethical. When Talbot eventually realized the story of Mathers’ death was only a rumor, he was relieved and decided to join the anti-war efforts with renewed vigor. From being a cadet in military school, Talbot became an anti-war activist who was arrested and even teargassed in protests. The rumor of his friend’s death made him all the more sensitive to the many who weren’t as fortunate and had actually been injured or died in Vietnam. Talbot himself was never drafted to fight in the war, thanks to Nixon’s lottery system.
At the time, the American public had mixed sentiments about America’s role in the Vietnam War. Men were drafted into the military by the thousands, and everyone knew someone who had suffered in the war. People were getting antsy about the loss of American lives on such a magnitude and even the overall state of unrest. Many claimed the war was unnecessary, and some even so far as to say it was immoral. An anti-war movement was on the horizon now, and activists were openly protesting the war and demanding America withdraw.
At such a tumultuous time, the rumor of Beaver’s death did more than just break fans’ hearts; it opened people’s eyes. Americans who were on the fence in their stand about the Vietnam War were now either here or there. The rumor forced people who accept that death was a real possibility for anyone and everyone in a state of war. After all, if the innocent Beaver Cleaver, who was the very image of a peaceful America and Tom Sawyer in the flesh, could be brutally murdered on foreign soil, then so could others.
Though no one can say for certain, many believe the rumor of Mathers’ death in Vietnam started when Shelley Winters announced Beaver’s death on a Tonight Show shortly after the other Sargent Mathers died in 1968. But this story itself could well be another rumor since there’s no evidence of Winters appearing on a Tonight Show at the time, and the only one you can find is from when Mathers’ rumored death was common knowledge.
Jerry Mathers finally put a rest to the rumors when he appeared on the Weekend Segment of Saturday Night Live in 1980. Host Bill Murray was seen making fun of him for ‘getting himself killed in Vietnam.’ Murray, Mathers, and Tony Dow do a bit when Murray pretends he started the rumor since Leave It to Beaver had ended, and he sought attention. It was a small segment, but it did the job. People had finally seen him on screen and had to believe the truth.
Mathers graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1973. And after that, Mathers did a little of this and that. He worked as a commercial loan officer, a disk jockey, and made his way back to entertainment through theatre. Mathers starred in the comedy play Boeing, Boeing, in Kansas City and toured the theater circuit in So Long, Stanley. He has since appeared in many films and TV shows, the most recent ones of which were Mother Goose Parade and Will to Power in 2008.
On a personal front, Mathers married thrice and has two daughters and a son with his second wife. He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1996. After his diagnosis, Mathers lost 40 pounds and became a diabetes advocate. He even appeared in a TV ad for diabetes reversal.
Despite Mathers’ other appearances on the big and small screens, his most memorable performance remains in Leave It to Beaver. The American actor even reprised his role of Beaver Cleaver in 1983 Still the Beaver, a reunion film. The TV reunion film’s success gave way to a sequel series, The New Leave It to Beaver in 1984, which ran on The Disney Channel and then Superstation WTBS. The show did a total of four seasons and ended in 1989. The sequel did well, but its popularity was not comparable to that of the parent series Leave It to Beaver. If you haven’t seen the show yet, you can always stream an episode online to see what was so special about it that audiences loved it for decades together.
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