Jerry Mathers has been a working actor since age 2 — a cool 59 years. But in between starring as the "The Beav" on the iconic sitcom "Leave it to Beaver" and starring on Broadway in "Hairspray" in 2007, Mathers played high school football, earned a philosophy degree, served in the Air Force National Guard, worked in banking, real estate and health advocacy and owned commercial property and a catering business.
The last few months, Mathers has been traveling throughout the U.S. on the Partnership for Prescription Assistance bus to raise awareness about diabetes, cancer, heart disease and asthma.
He will be in Apex on Friday to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Peak City Film Festival, which features the family entertainment that Mathers has been involved with his entire acting career.
Q: So why did you agree to come out to Apex for the Peak City Film Festival and accept the lifetime achievement award?
A: I know John (Demers, executive producer of the film festival). I worked on a movie with him (Will to Power) in North Carolna.
Q: I'm sure you get asked to a lot of events like this so why this film festival? Did it have anything to do with the family TV element?
A: Obviously that would be one of the things that drew me to it. John told me it was family friendly. It's one of those things; obviously I could be working all the time if I wanted to do something (that wasn't family friendly). Basically TV these days is a lot of reality shows. Honestly, I don't watch much because it isn't very interesting. ...
"Leave it to Beaver" Is the longest running scripted show on TV; it has been running somewhere for 52 years. It's a show you can watch together and adults will relate, kids will relate, even teens will relate to Wally. My youngest is 23. TV these days, it's embarrassing to sit there and watch a show and it's stuff you may not want your kids to see or know.
Q: What are you up to now?
A: I just filmed the Time-Life 60s Explosion [infomercial]. I'm traveling with Partnership for Prescription Assistance to give uninsured and underinsured people, who are struggling, the medication for chronic diseases they need for free or almost free. ... I was also at SAS (in Cary) a few weeks ago and did a satellite meeting where they introduced 200 new medications.
I have diabetes so I was specifically interested in two of the meds.
(Mathers talks about his health advocacy work in Tuesday's Life section of The N&O.)
Q: You have a Philosophy degree from the University of California in Berkeley. What would you be doing without the notoriety of being a child TV star?
A: Actually I paid for college with my "Leave it to Beaver" money. I probably would have been an attorney. At Cal, the leading majors in law school were history, English and philosophy. You do a lot of briefs and a lot of writing.
I had invested the money and was living off the dividends to put myself through school. The manager at the bank I was working at at the time told me, "Hey, you could spend three years in law school or the day you get out you can come and work in my management program and learn all you need to know about business. I thought about it and it sounded like a pretty good deal. After college, I worked at the bank for two or three years. Then I worked as a loan officer. Then I realized I was approving all these loans for people in real estate who were working on commission and making more money than I was on salary so I went into commercial real estate.
Q: You stopped working as an actor during that time?
A: Mostly until I worked with Tony again. Tony Dow (who played Wally on "Leave it to Beaver") had always worked as an actor. I walked away at 13 to go to high school and play sports (football, track, swimming). I went back to acting after college after I learned about banking, loans, and business.
Then Tony and I did one play that sold out in Kansas City for 18 months. New York and Hollywood saw that and said, well if they're that popular doing something that has nothing to do with "Leave it to Beaver" we should do a remake. Then I tried to retire and put on all that weight.
Q: You seemed to have weathered that middle period after being a kid actor just fine. Others have not. Was there a hard part for you?
A: It wasn't hard at all. I had been working since I was two years old. I loved going to the studio. I did "Leave it to Beaver" for six years. We did 39 episodes per year. We'd do four weeks of PR in New York and two weeks in Chicago then come back and take a break then start back again. I had a wonderful time doing it. But I had a private tutor so I was not around other kids. Even the school scenes, which we did maybe once every three or four shows, we'd do those in one or two days.
At the end of the series, the studio came to my Dad and said, "We have a movie and a series we'd like Jerry to do." My dad asked me what I wanted to do. At that time, a lot of kid actors were supporting their families. My dad was principal of the largest school in the Los Angeles Unified School District and later retired as a superintendent. I didn't have that worry.
I said, "No. I want to go to regular school. I want to play sports." Then when I graduated from college, I had three choices. I could get drafted, enlist or go to Canada. So the next six years I was in the Air Force National Guard. I didn't really have any time to get into trouble.
I did work in between all those times. I did all sorts of other shows like "Batman" and "My Three Sons" but only during the summer. People would try to hire me during the school year and I'd say, "No I have to go to football practice or I can't play."
Q: I don't know how to ask this question. I guess I want to ask you to look at your acting career and tell me what part makes you most proud?
A: I think I am most proud of going to Broadway (doing Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theater) even though I have had the longest running show in television history. Very few people get to perform on Broadway. I was doing standing room only shows and it was a musical. The plays I'd done before that were mostly dramas and comedies. Musicals are very hard. They're the hardest kind. ...
If you had asked me two or three years ago, I'd have said I'd never go for Broadway. Maybe I'd do a comedy, not a musical. They were doing 75 and 80 percent of capacity before I came and 90 percent while I was there. I was playing Wilbur (Tracy Turnblad's father) and I think he has one of the best songs ("Timeless to Me") in the whole show.
It's something I'm very, very proud of because it was a real challenge. The last song, "You Can't Stop the Beat" lasts 14 minutes and I'm on stage for 12 of it. There are 35 performers and dancers on stage and every second beat you're doing some cheerleading move and if you're one beat off you throw everyone off. That's pressure.
My agent had called me and said, "Hey let's go to New York to see this show." And I said, "OK, sure." Then he said, "One catch, you have to audition." And I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well at least you can say you auditioned for a Broadway show." I said, "OK." And he said, "There's just one other little thing." By that time I was laughing. Turns out it was a regular audition with Broadway veterans. If he'd say, go try out for a musical, I would have said I can't do it. I had a band in high school but it was like a garage band playing rock and roll.
I had nothing to lose so I'm very, very proud of that. Broadway is only like 200 years old so not many actors have trampled those floorboards. I hate to say it it's a very elite group of actors. That's the nice thing about where I am. A lot of actors are poor; they have to do things to pay the bills. I'm lucky enough not to be in that position right now. Knock on wood, I won't be.