The day before Jerry Mathers showed up at the Dallas Observer offices, his arrival became an endless string of tiresome one-liners he's no doubt had to endure for 45 years; needless to say, the low point came when two of us decided to interview him at once, thus allowing for hours of fun about "tag-teaming the Beaver." (He was in Dallas to speak to an audience of 300 about psoriasis, a disease caused by the buildup of excess cells on the skin that is painful and sometimes disfiguring. For decades Mathers has been suffering from psoriasis and has spent more time on a podium than a screen talking to others suffering from the same condition. This follows years speaking about diabetes, which he's also had for years.
"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.
You were in Berkeley during the Vietnam War. Ever put flowers in your hair?
Flowers in my hair? Yes, but I wasn't out in the violent demonstrations going on at the time, where they were taking over buildings. I was in the National Guard, and most of the people in fraternities were not the people protesting typically.--Robert Wilonsky
Leave no journalist behind. That's the wartime motto of the local affiliates, who still dedicate a majority of their nightly broadcasts to coverage of Gulf War II; in other words, what mayoral race? Even the weather forecasters have gotten into the act, giving us the five-day outlook for Baghdad every night. But every broadcaster in town has gotten into the act, from Robert Riggs, once embedded like a tick, to Dale Hansen, who has declared jihad on Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban. Full Frontal has jotted down some other ways the local network affiliates have tried to remain relevant when everyone else is watching CNN or Friends reruns.
··· Last Friday, KXAS-Channel 5 medical reporter Deborah Ferguson was live, from 2:34 a.m. till 6:14 a.m., removing the ingrown toenail of Fort Hood-based reservist Lee "Iceman" Mayhew. In fact, the gruesome, tiresome surgery became the topic of great conversation and consternation among media watchdogs, many of whom insisted a reporter should maintain distance from a story. "The press pass demands detachment," wrote Tom Shales in The Washington Post. Others, among them Marvin Kalb of the Shorenstein Institute, praised Ferguson for "putting heart and health above the journalist's ice-cold capacity for taking notes." Sports anchor Newy "Newdog" Scruggs has volunteered to stop saying "dat's da bomb" when referring to anchor Jane McGarry till the war is over.
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··· To simulate the grainy, stop-motion footage coming from the battlefield, KDFW-Channel 4 has begun broadcasting using videophone technology. The only anchor to complain thus far has been Heather Hayes. Shaun Rabb was almost let go from the affiliate when, during a recent broadcast from a South Dallas apartment complex fire, he began detailing his location by drawing in the ash with a sharp stick. He hastily covered the markings with his fedora.
··· WFAA-Channel 8 traffic reporter Alexa Conomos began "embedding" herself in the morning commute two weeks ago. Last Thursday she was live, at 7:18 a.m., from the back of a stalled Humvee on 183, near D-FW International Airport. On March 26, Channel 8 also hired former Dallas Cowboy Chad Hennings, an Air Force pilot during Gulf War I, as a "sports-military" consultant during Dale Hansen's segments.
··· Now that Robert Riggs is back from his month-long stay in Iraq and Kuwait, KTVT-Channel 11 has forced anchors Tracy Rowlett and Karen Borda to start sleeping outside without benefit of bed, shower or razor; the two will also eat from MREs for the rest of the war. "We don't want anyone to think we're not committed to supporting our troops," says Rowlett, who will begin, on April 12, wearing a suit made entirely from a United States flag. Sports anchor Babe Laufenberg will also do his part by beginning each newscast singing "Proud to Be an American" with Dallas Desperados coach Joe Avezzano.
··· KDAF-Channel 33's news department sent out a press release March 28 reminding media outlets that "We are still on the air." At press time, this could not be confirmed.--Robert Wilonsky