Tony Dow, who helped create the popular and enduring image of the American teenager of the 1950s and ’60s as Wally Cleaver on the sitcom Leave It to Beaver, died Wednesday. He was 77.
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 been diagnosed with prostate and gallbladder cancer.
“Although this is a very sad day, I have comfort and peace that he is in a better place,” Dow’s son Christopher 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 voice of reason, my best friend, my best man at my wedding and my hero.”
A post on Dow’s Facebook page prematurely announced Tuesday that he had died, but his wife and management team later retracted the post, saying it was announced in error.
Dows Wally was an often resentful but fundamentally loving big brother who constantly rescued the show’s title character Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver, played by Jerry Mathers, who embodied the sometimes hokey, wholesome image of 1950s American family.
Dow was born and raised in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles – his mother was a stuntwoman who doubled for silent film star Clara Bow – but his parents didn’t push him into show business.
He had only done a little stage acting and appeared in two pilots. After attending an open casting call, he landed his career-defining role as Wally.
Dow played the role for six seasons and more than 200 episodes from 1957 to 1963 in prime time on CBS and ABC, then for more than 100 episodes in the 1980s in a syndicated installment series.
On the show, Wally, sometimes the center of the plot himself, navigated the worlds of junior high and high school – his two-faced best friend Eddie Haskell by his side – with just a little more wisdom than his little brother. The show’s storylines suggested that Wally had big plans – he mentions wanting to be an aerospace engineer – and he tended to find himself in moral dilemmas stemming from his basic goodness.
Dow’s favorite episode was one in which the ever-ready father, Ward Cleaver, played by Hugh Beaumont, wants to show his sons what his childhood was like. He takes her into the wilderness even though they had urgent business to attend to at home.
“The guys didn’t want to leave because Zombies From Outer Space was on in the theater,” Dow said in an interview with Sidewalks Entertainment at Silicon Valley Comic-Con in 2018.
After the trip, at the end of the episode, Ward spots the boys with binoculars on a hilltop and thinks they’re taking in some nature.
“They watched Zombies from Space at the drive-in movie theater,” Dow said, laughing.
The show was still popular when it aired, but of course it had gotten off to a flying start when Wally was about to go to college and Beaver was on her way to high school.
After Dow’s death, Mathers and Rusty Stevens, who played Beaver’s friend Larry Mondello, are the only surviving members of the show’s core cast. Beaumont died in 1982. Barbara Billingsley, who played Wally and Beaver’s mother, June Cleaver, died in 2010. Ken Osmond, who played Haskell, died in 2020.
Dow guest-starred on other television series throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, including My Three Sons, Dr. Kildare, Adam-12, Emergency, Square Pegs and Knight Rider.
He took a break from acting to serve in the US National Guard for three years in the late 1960s.
From 1983 to 1989, amid a cultural craze for nostalgia television, Dow reprized the role of Wally on The New Leave it to Beaver.
He began writing and directing episodes of that series, and in the 1990s worked as a television director for shows such as The New Lassie, Babylon 5, Harry and the Hendersonsand, and Star Trek: Deep Space nine”.
At a time when such disclosures were rare, Dow went public with his clinical depression in the 1980s and made self-help videos on acceptance and management of the disease.
Along with appearing at pop culture conventions in later years, often alongside Mather, Dow worked as an artist and gained a formidable reputation as a sculptor.
One of his bronze works was accepted at the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 2008, a 150-year-old art exhibition held annually at the Louvre.
Dow told the Associated Press in 2012 that its openings have drawn as many people anxious to meet the beaver’s big brother as to see his art.
“I think it’s hard, especially with the Wally image, to be taken seriously about pretty much anything else,” he said with a chuckle and a shake of his head.
Dow is survived by his 42-year-old wife Lauren; his son Christopher; his daughter-in-law Melissa; and his brother Dion.