Tony Dow talks about life on “Leave it to Beaver,” his career as a sculptor and how he reinvented himself in each manifestation of his creative persona.
From the moment Leave it to Beaver hit the airwaves in April of 1957 it was obvious that Tony Dow had created a remarkable TV character. Modest, measured, soft-spoken, vulnerable yet self-assured, likeable and loyal, Dows Wally was a reflection of the actor himself.
From TV pop icon to director to respected sculptor, Dow has reinvented himself with apparent ease, finding success in each new manifestation of his creative persona.
Interviewing Dow at his sprawling Topanga Canyon home, it was clear that the boyish charm and wit of Wally still resides in Tony Dow the artist. In a mystical environment of exotic fruit trees, gardens and labyrinth of ponds, Tony has created a laissez-faire Shangri-La for himself and his wife, Lauren, also an artist.
In this secluded retreat, sealed from the strife and struggle of the outside world, Tony carves local burl wood into human forms that are then cast in bronze. With ascetic devotion, he removes chips of wood until the figures within are revealed.
For two hours, the public image of the Wally character was likewise chipped away to reveal the man insidethe candid Tony Dow.
How do you account for the enduring popularity of Wally Cleaver, the character you created on Leave it to Beaver so many years ago?
It was a great character and a great show. The fact that its been on television uninterrupted for fifty-six years, that's how good the show was. I think it was much more honest than most of the other shows around at the time. The concept was, rather than Robert Young in Father Knows Best looking at his kids growing up, this was two kids, Beaver and Wally, looking at the craziness of the adult world.
As a teenager was it your goal to become an actor?
Dow with his wife Lauren, also an artist, and their dog, Bodie.
No. It was a complete accident. I was a swimmer and a diver and I won some national records. The pool I worked out at was The Hollywood Athletic Club. The lifeguard there was Bill Bryant. He was an actor and we looked kind of alike. He was going on an interview as the father in a father and son series and I asked my mom if I could go [interview] with him. So I got dressed up in my blue suit and went down to Columbia. Lo and behold we got the part and it kinda just snowballed. If you look at some of those first shows you can see that I had no idea what acting was about, but thats part of the charm of the character. In the beginning, I underplayed the character because I didnt know how to do anything else. Eventually, when I got to see the Deans and the Brandos, I evolved into being more real.
How did you deal with fame at such a young age?
It was quite different than today. Our producers wanted kids to just be kids. For example, all other shows would shoot through the summer, but we had our summers off. Once a year we would go to New York to the Waldorf-Astoria and the media and press would go through; it was a junket, theyd sit down and talk with us for half an hour and then the next group would come in. The producers actually didnt want us to watch the show. There are a lot of shows I still have never seen. But otherwise, I didnt deal with it [fame] very well; its sort of an uncomfortable thing.
How long did Leave it to Beaver run?
Six years, 234 episodes, from the time I was 12 to 18 and graduated from high school.
What did you do after the Leave it to Beaver era?
In a mystical environment of exotic fruit trees, gardens and labyrinth of ponds, Tony has created a laissez-faire Shangri-La in Topanga.
I kept acting and did maybe 16 guest actor roles at that time. I went to UCLA at night because I was working during the day and took psychology courses. I didnt take any acting because the film departments at the colleges werent developed at that time. The best shows I did were a Dr. Kildare and 11th Hour combination show. Jack Smight was the director. He also did [films] Illustrated Man and [Battle of] Midway, but this was the first single camera show he had ever done. He was from Playhouse 90 and Studio One. I wanted to direct, so I spent all the time I could with him going to dailies and in the editing room, and it was fabulous. I really enjoyed it because I thought directing was a cool deal. Then I went to Sherwood Oaks Experimental School to study directing, but it was tough to break into.
As an actor and director where do you feel most comfortable, behind or in front of the camera?
Behind the camera. I like directing. I like the fact that its a full-time job from before the shooting through to the editing. In television the producers are the guys who call the shots, but you have a certain amount of control, certainly on the set you do. I would rather act in a good project, than direct a crappy one. And I would rather direct a good project than act in a crappy one. So, it really depends on the quality of the production.
How did you become a sculptor?
Dow works on one of his latest pieces, a commission for the International Diving Hall of Fame.
Well, from the time I was in my late teens I started welding, brazing actually, because I used copper. I was going to shows, setting up and selling pieces, and I made some cool things. But I decided that when I retired I would come back to sculpture. I had this idealized image of being up in San Simeon in a big warehouse on the beach with my gallery down below and my house up above, studio in back [laughing].
Tell me about your latest work.
Right now Im working on a commission I cant solve, so its hanging over my head. Its for the International Diving Hall of Fame.
Going back, the first series I did tended to be all the same, they were all figures, they had small heads and were set on a long base. I was trying to get a show together and I did 20 or so pieces like that. Then a friend of mine who is an internationally known artist said, These are great; you have to have your stuff bronzed. So I spent a ton of money getting all of those things bronzed. Ive gone through different phases where Ive done some commissioned pieces and I realized that if you have a piece you can do in an efficient manner... thats what the Artifact series is. I can set up six pieces and do the cores, then do the plaster, then the appliqué and I can do five a week.
How do you balance figurative representation and the tendency toward abstraction in the Artifact pieces?
I don't look at them figuratively.
But, they appear to be human figures.
Yes they do, because the top part can be seen as a hat and the second part as a head. Once the first one came along I liked that, but basically the concept was to make something that had no definition of time. They look like theyve been at the bottom of the sea for a thousand years.
Take us inside the mind of an artist. How do you begin a piece like that?
You get an idea and it germinates over a period of time. The idea for the Artifact pieces germinated for two or three years. Then I tried to make one and I liked it, it was interesting. The idea was the contrast between the parts, because contrast is one of the most interesting things about art. Contrast is one of the more important words, if not the most important word in art to me. So, its the contrast between these simple plaster pieces and the complexity of the computer parts.
What is your dream project?
These smaller pieces Ive done, I thought of them as maquettes for bigger pieces. There are four or five of them that I think would be just great as large pieces. That would be something Id really love to do.
Is there anything youve done that youd like to burn all the copies of?
Oh yeah oh yeah [laughing]. I did the stupidest thing. I was living in Venice [Beach] and building a house for my landlord. It was a two-and-a-half year project. Somebody parked in one of the tenants parking places. You know, people get pissed off in Venice when you do that, so she took a trash can and poured the trash on top of the car and the person sued her. They ended up on The Peoples Court with Judge Wapner. Her boyfriend was going to go with her on the show and then he couldnt make it so she asked me: Please, my boyfriend has a job, he cant make it, just go with me.
So I said alright. I went down and they said, Why dont you stand up with her and tell the story. I think more people saw me do that than anything Ive ever done in my life. And the reason I did it was because I said nobody watches this stupid show. Judge Wapner had to treat me like a schmuck. Are you an attorney? No. Then why dont you just shut-up? [laughing]. It was horrible.
I was watching a cult film, Kentucky Fried Movie, and there you were.
Oh, that was another burner. Although those guys were really talented, the Zucker brothers, Abrams, theyve gone on to be huge. That was another deal where Jerry [Mathers] and I were supposed to do this thing and I get to the set I think I had a moustacheand John Landis who was directing said to me, You have to get rid of the moustache. I said wait a second.
He said we cant have it. So I said okay. Then Jerry [Mathers] didnt show up so Jerry Zucker played the part of Beaver, so if you notice in the theater Jerry isnt there its some other guy playing him.
And another one was Back to the Beach. All those things were designed because we were on Beaver. They were horribly exploitative at no advantage to me.
Whats the most unbelievable rumor ever printed about you?
That I was married to Raquel Welch. I had a stand-in on the Beaver show and he was a real go-getter and he had the most gorgeous girlfriends. Linda Evans was his girlfriend for a long time and then, Raquel. Hes the one who took her to Europe and brought her back as the most photographed woman in the world.
The other weird instance was when I got a call from the police. This guy was with his psychiatrist and he said he was going to kill three people because they were putting poison in his food or something. Ronald Reagan, Bruce Herschensohn and Tony Dow.
Now, whats wrong with this picture?
Whats the magic formula for success?
Education. Not necessarily formal education, but learning about whatever it is you want to perfect. Persistence and having an emotional connection to whatever it is youre doing. However, those are all idealistic things and no idealistic things really work for success. They always get in the way of success.
Some people say Tony Dow has it all. Whats your reaction to that?
Bulls**t. Nobody has it all. Theres cause and effect. You can have your house on the beach, a beautiful wife, great kids, but in order to keep that up you have to work so much you never get to go to the beach or see your wife or see your kids.
Theres always a trade-off. I have it pretty good. We live in Topanga, which is probably the coolest spot in the Los Angeles area, or maybe anywhere. Anybody whos been here thinks its just the greatest spot in the world, which it very well may be.