By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Speaking engagements like this are my way of giving back," says the 54-year-old forever known as Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver. "Most actors are afraid to do things like this, because of [insurance problems]. I am in a position financially where it doesn't matter."
Ward and June raised their boy well: Mathers spent an hour tolerating questions about his pre- and post-Leave it to Beaver career and about what he likes and loathes about current network programming. He's critical but never cruel, opinionated but open-minded--and (who knew?) he loves Coldplay. Mathers still works: He pitches new series to the networks every year, shows up occasionally in TV Land documentaries or off-network series (such as USA's brilliant good vs. evil) and even has a small role in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival hit Better Luck Tomorrow, which opens in Dallas on April 18. He plays a bitter teacher--the anti-Beav, which is just what director-co-writer Justin Lin had in mind for his dramedy about a group of Asian-American Eddie Haskells who get into all kinds of trouble.
"Suburbia is a character in the film," Lin says. "The young Beaver is the idealized suburbia, and here you see the Beav all grown up, and he's not the happiest guy. He's disenfranchised, disinterested, and when he's teaching he's not the best teacher." Mathers hasn't yet seen Better Luck Tomorrow.
You have been doing a lot of public speaking, but I assume the biggest kick you get is from acting.
Yeah, but honestly, I don't pursue it with any vigor, because it really doesn't make sense. I could go on interviews all week every week, but I'd end up signing a lot of autographs and giving out a lot of pictures.
Your first forays into public speaking came 15 years ago, when you began talking about the demise of quality family programming on the networks.
It was something I believed in and still do. I pitch probably two shows every year to the networks that are not Leave it to Beaver by any sense, but are more family-friendly, and they tell me there's not a market for that kind of television. I tell the network executives, "Then why--every time I go out and do speaking all across the country--do people ask me why there aren't shows like that and tell me how they don't watch television anymore?"
Do you like anything?
Gilmore Girls is good. I just think there should be a few things kids could watch. It's important to note the disconnect. When Leave it to Beaver was on, a lot of times there would only be one television in the house, maybe two. At my house, we have only one TV, so we all have to agree to watch the same thing. That's how I discovered Gilmore Girls, through my daughter. But there are very few parents who know what their kids are watching, because they have a TV and a computer in their own rooms.
You're in the only comedy Hitchcock ever made, The Trouble with Harry.
It's an honor to be able to say there aren't that many living actors who can say they worked with Hitchcock. I used to talk with him when I was on the lot for Leave it to Beaver, because he was doing Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The thing I remember most about him in the later years was he was the first person to ever call me "Mr. Maaathers." I was either Beaver or Jerry, and my dad was Mr. Mathers, and here came Hitch saying, "Mr. Mathers, how are we doing today?"
It seems to me that you never let Beaver define you but used it as a jumping-off point for other things that interested you over the years.
It basically set me up financially for life, and because of that and making correct judgments, which other child actors did not make, I was able to live and be able to pass down to my children a lifestyle that is very, very comfortable...Because of that, you have to be careful of what you do, because with one mistake, you can ruin a lifetime's worth of good behavior.
How do you decide what to do?
When I get a script, I will only see a part I am in, which is a small part, and when you see the whole picture, you go, "Oh, well, maybe I should choose this." Then again, I do that and lose some interesting parts. When I read Airplane, they wanted me to be in that, and it says things in the script like, "Shit hits the fan: Man picks up dogshit and throws it in fan and it goes all over people." I'm going, "What kind of movie is this?" I turned that down, and it was a very big hit.