living down beaver

When you're trying to smash the state, it's painful to be reminded that you were once Gilbert to Jerry Mathers' Beaver on the TV show that defined white-bread suburbia.

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when Richard Nixon ordered U.S. troops to invade Cambodia in April
1970, I was standing in front of the New Haven, Conn., courthouse,
surrounded by National Guard soldiers who had been issued live ammunition.
Like every other young radical on the East Coast, I had come to New Haven
to protest the arrest of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. We were
smoldering with discontent, and our mood had not been improved by a dose of
police pepper gas the night before.

From the standpoint of ensuring domestic tranquillity, this was an
inauspicious moment for Nixon to launch his invasion. When Tom Hayden
suddenly announced what was happening in Cambodia, 20,000 of us
decided in a burst of participatory democracy to return to our campuses and
organize a national student strike. Forget New Haven, we would paralyze
the country! At my own nearby college the next day, my friends and I kept
interrupting a Grateful Dead concert to urge our fellow students to
boycott classes for the rest of the semester. Our appeals met with
success, but, to my eternal humiliation, a large poster appeared in the
student dining hall mocking my efforts. It read, “Strike? Gee, Beav, I
don’t know.”

I had been outed, publicly shamed: a long-haired New Leftist in
regulation denim work shirt and bell-bottomed blue jeans exposed as a
former child actor in “Leave it to Beaver,” the quintessential suburban
sitcom. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. I was Gilbert Bates,
Beaver’s friend. “Gee, Beav, I don’t know” was my signature line. There.
I’ve admitted it. They can’t hurt me anymore.

From 1958 until 1963, I appeared in more than 50 episodes of
“Leave it to Beaver.” I was the blond kid with big ears who usually
manipulated the gullible Beaver Cleaver into committing some minor
transgression. I would then disappear while Beaver was caught and
punished. “I may be a dirty rat,” Gilbert acknowledged, “but I’m not a
dumb rat.”

Over the years there have been other embarrassing incidents, but
I’ve learned to endure them. In 1980, while making “Broken Arrow,” a documentary for public television on nuclear weapons accidents, my camera
crew and I were detained by the Navy and the FBI confiscated our film. In
the end, the government backed down, but for several days they threatened to
prosecute us for trespassing and — incredibly — espionage. I felt like
Woodward and Bernstein, a risk-taker pursuing the truth. That is, until I
read the review in the San Jose Mercury News. “In a way, it was pretty much the same sort of mess Talbot used to get Jerry Mathers into each week on ‘Leave
it to Beaver,’” the TV critic wrote. “As Beaver’s pal, Gilbert, he was a
scheming little runt without scruples.”

Whoa, wait a minute. In the interests of historical accuracy
I should say that, yes, Gilbert was a troublemaker and an occasional liar,
but my character was certainly no Eddie Haskell — that leering teenage
hypocrite who spoke unctuously to parents (“Well, hello Mrs. Cleaver, and
how is young Theodore today?) and venomously to the Beav (“Hey, squirt,
take a powder before I squash you like a bug”). Eddie, played by Ken
Osmond, was the show’s one truly inspired creation. Alas, poor Ken
fell victim to a series of false but persistent rumors that he had morphed
into the twisted rock singer Alice Cooper or, worse, started
appearing in porno movies. But, in fact, Osmond became an L.A. cop who
was once shot three times by a car thief and survived only because the bullets
struck his protective vest and belt buckle.

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You see, this is what it has come to: I have spent my adult life
trying to conceal my “Leave it to Beaver” past or correcting the
historical record. Either way the series has become inescapable. When I
was a kid, I loved acting; in fact, I badgered my father (himself an actor,
Lyle Talbot) and mother until they allowed me to work. But how could I
have known as an innocent 9-year-old that I was taking part in a
television program that would live on for 40 years as an icon for baby
boomers? In the early ’80s, I turned down an offer to revive my role as
Gilbert in a dreadful “Beaver” reunion series. “I’m trying to establish
myself as a documentary filmmaker and an investigative reporter,” I
explained to the producers. “I can’t go back to being Gilbert.”

“Of
course,” they said, “we understand. You’re a serious professional. We’ll
rewrite the script.” They made Gilbert a hip psychologist analyzing the
adult Beaver’s divorce and dysfunctional personality. The producers
sounded genuinely baffled when I said, “I don’t think so.”

Now “Beaver” is back again, like a surreal jack-in-the-box popping
up in my life with a crazy grin. A “Leave it to Beaver” movie is
being inflicted upon America. And TV Guide is preparing a story and photo spread to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the start of the original series. So today, I officially surrender to Beaver Mania. I accept my role as a footnote in broadcast history.

“You got out at the right time,” Tony Dow — who played Beaver’s big
brother, Wally — told me recently when I saw him for the first time in
30 years. “You made a clean break and you found something you like to do.”
He had called me from an alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he was directing promos for Don Johnson’s forgettable new series, “Nash Bridges.”
When I dropped by the set, I found Tony to be as friendly and down-to-earth
as I’d remembered. I asked him if he ever saw Jerry and he said, yes, they meet to try to figure out how to get a cut of all the money being made from the exploitation of “Beaver.” Tony and Jerry may be all-American icons, but they aren’t rich. They worked in television in the days when all you got was your salary and a few residuals. “At least I can do other things and be myself,” Tony said. “No matter what Jerry does, he’ll always be the Beaver.”

Which brings me back to the series itself. Why has it persisted?
What’s this obsession with “Leave it to Beaver”? Demographics, for one thing. Boomers still dominate the culture, and God knows boomers are a narcissistic,
self-referential, TV generation. And now that many of us are parents raising children in a less secure, divorce-prone, sometimes violent world, that “Leave it to Beaver” image of late 1950s suburban prosperity and stability has a certain retro appeal, even if we all know the image wasn’t reality, it was a new, improved reality.

“Beaver’s” longevity also has a lot to do with recycling. No one
recycles as aggressively as Hollywood. Whoever owns an old TV series can
sell it to cable for pure profit. And whoever can recycle an old idea for
a movie or TV show doesn’t have to think of a new idea. There are hundreds
of channels out there. One of them is running “Leave it to Beaver” right now.

There is one other reason for the show’s lasting appeal. And here I enter revisionist territory that would confound and appall my 21-year-old New Left self. Despite its obvious white-bread limitations and its hideous laugh track, “Leave it to Beaver” has some redeeming qualities. The relationship between the brothers, for one. Wally is a kind of ideal older brother — handsome, athletic, loyal — and Wally and Beaver share an awkward intimacy that is quirky and appealing. Which reveals the show’s other secret. Despite Ward Cleaver’s paternal homilies and June Cleaver’s maternal efficiency, “Beaver” was really about the kids. The show captured something of the experience of being a white kid loose on the streets of suburbia — at odds with the world of alien adults.

At rare moments, “Beaver” even transcended the “improved reality”
of sitcom suburbia to achieve a dreamlike, surreal quality. The episode
in which Beaver climbs a billboard and falls into a cup of simulated
steaming soup has the resonance of a modern fable: a boy swallowed up by a
giant advertisement.

Or consider the episode I caught at random this week, “Beaver’s
Doll Buggy.” It starts routinely enough: Beaver needs wheels for a
homemade soapbox car. He decides to obtain them from a classmate, a girl,
who gives Beaver her old doll carriage. Innocently, Beaver sets out for
home, across town, pushing the buggy. And then the journey turns into a
suburban nightmare. Little girls mock him. Housewives scold. A man says
he’s worried about this new generation: “They’ve gone sissy on us.” When
Wally hears what’s happening, he fears for Beaver’s safety. “The only
thing worse,” he says, “is to be caught in his underwear.” Mrs. Cleaver
seems oblivious until Wally shouts, “Don’t you remember what it was like
when you were a kid? Guys always pick on someone who’s different. This
could put a curse on our whole family.” Even Eddie Haskell shows concern:
“I certainly hope no one slaughters the little fellow.”

The episode becomes a meditation on the rigid sex roles of the
’50s. The hapless Beaver finally abandons the doll buggy in a ravine
rather than suffer further trauma. Ironically, Gilbert passes by, spots
the abandoned carriage, and salvages the wheels for his homemade
car. Later, he commiserates with the Beav about the dangers of
crossing gender lines (not in those words exactly). That’s the only hint of the social revolution that would erupt a decade later. It’s enough that we’re left with the image of our Everyboy trapped in a suburban hall of mirrors — it’s funny, it’s harrowing (from the kid’s perspective), there’s even a hint of Buster Keaton. And it’s hard to expect much more from a sitcom, I realize.

For years, I’ve figured I had to atone politically and aesthetically
for appearing in “Leave it to Beaver.” I’m still not off the hook, but I’m
beginning to think maybe I could get away with pleading no contest to a
cultural misdemeanor.

Stephen Talbot's summer movie picks are "Smoke Signals" and "Bulworth."

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