Actor Jerry Mathers was born Gerald Patrick Mathers on June 2, 1948, in Sioux City, Iowa. He is the son of Norm and Marilyn Mathers. His father was a high school principal and later a school district executive in Los Angeles. Mathers began his acting career for a PET milk commercial with comedic actor Ed Wynn. From here, Mathers obtained child-roles in the films The Seven Little Foys with James Cagney and Bob Hope and Alfred Hitchcock production The Trouble with Harry also starring John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine.
Big Break to Iconic Stardom
In 1957, opportunity came that would forever define Mathers. He auditioned for and got the role of Theodore Cleaver, better known as "the Beaver" for the television situation comedy Leave it to Beaver. Reportedly he got the role because of his candid "kid" attitude in telling the producers he would rather be at his cub scout meeting than auditioning for this part.
Leave it to Beaver was a situation comedy television series that centered on the antics and adventures of Theodore Cleaver (the Beaver), a naïve but inquisitive pre-teen living in a typical American white middle-class family in the suburbs. The series was one of the first primetime sitcoms to be written from a child's point of view.
Mathers' character would often find himself embroiled in some sort of misunderstanding due often to his innocent way of looking at the world, particularly adults and their problems. The confusion would come to light and Beaver's parents would be faced with the dilemma of reprimanding the child or just giving him a hug for showing them a different perspective.
The series ran for six seasons (1957-'63) and was later seen in more than 80 countries in 40 languages. Mathers had a remarkable personal and professional relationship with co-stars Tony Dow, who played his brother Wally, and Barbara Billingsley, who played his mother June. Mathers remained close to Billingsley until her death in 2010. He often said that his television family was as much a part of his life as his own family.
The series was not renewed at the beginning of the 1963-'64 season and many of the series stars wanted to move on to other projects. Mathers entered Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California, and from there he served in the Air Force National Guard (1967-'69). He was mistakenly reported as killed in action during the Vietnam War, but all of his duties were stateside. After leaving military service he attended and graduated from the University of California (Berkley) in 1973 with a BA in philosophy.
Mathers was the first child actor to receive royalties from merchandizing the show. After graduation from college, he was able to parlay his well-invested earnings into successful banking and real estate businesses and later charities. But he didn't leave show business for long. In 1983, he reprised his role of "the Beaver" along with original cast members Billingsley, Tony Dow and Ken Osmond (who played friend and sometime irritant Eddie Haskell).
Hugh Beaumont, who had played Beaver's father, Ward Cleaver, had died in 1982. The made for television movie entitled Still the Beaver was later made into a television/cable sitcom The New Leave it to Beaver that ran from 1985-'89. In the late 1990s, Mathers owned and operated a successful catering company in Santa Clara, California. During this time, Mathers married and divorced twice and fathered three children -- son Noah and daughters Mercedes and Gretchen -- with his second wife, Rhonda.
In 1996, Mathers was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes after he noticed some health problems. He took preventative action, dropped 55 pounds, and put himself on a diet and exercise regimen. He became a spokesperson for the disease speaking before various groups and testifying before Congress to bring awareness to children and adults about the growing problem of diabetes.
In 2007, Mathers made his Broadway debut starring as Wilbur Turnblad in the Tony-winning best musical Hairspray. Though first seen as a casting gimmick, Mathers proved to be quite an asset to the show not only increasing attendance the first week, but also playing for standing room only houses during the rest of his run in the role.