The series, created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher (The Munsters) and which also featured Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as Beaver’s parents and a host of guest stars playing indelible recurring characters, premiered 60 years ago this week, and for the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with classic television historian Herbie J Pilato, who offers some recollections and insight into the popular series.
Herbie J Pilato is the author of several classic TV companion books including Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2012) and his newest Dashing, Daring and Debonair: TV’s Top Male Icons from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2016), which features a profile of Leave it to Beaver star Tony Dow. Pilato writes about classic TV for the Television Academy’s Emmys.org, serves as Contributing Editor Emeritus for Larry Brody’s TV Writer.com, founded and serves as Executive Director for the Classic TV Preservation Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the positive social influence of classic television programming, and presides over his own production company, Television, Ink, which produces family-oriented TV shows including his new classic TV talk show, Then Again with Herbie J Pilato, which soon debuts on the Decades network. His website is: www.herbiejpilatio.com.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way do you think Leave it to Beaver should be remembered on its 60th anniversary?
Herbie J Pilato: Leave it to Beaver represents everything good and what ultimately should be true in the representation and reality of the ideal and traditional American family. Yet, too, at its very heart and hearth, it also is a showcase of sincere love, as it represents every form of family however that has been defined over the years and today. Love is love, however it is expressed and Leave it to Beaver expresses that love and affection, whether it’s between son and mother, father and son, brother to brother, between friends. The show represents how we should all treat each other… with respect and dignity… and how through it all, we should never lose our sense of humor. In short, Leave it to Beaver offers the complete package of what a television show should be for yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Coate: Can you remember when you first saw the show?
Pilato: Yes… I do remember the first time I saw the series. I did not watch it during its original network run, but I caught it during one of its first syndicated reruns. It used to air early on Sunday mornings in Rochester, New York, where I was born and raised. I would watch it sometimes before or after I went to Church with my Mom, depending on the Mass we would choose. I remember the obvious morals and family values of Leave it to Beaver, and how it fit so perfectly well with everything wonderful about Sundays, and not only going to Church, or dinner with the family, but the safe and comforting sense of being and feeling loved…and all that truly means. I was very blessed in that way. I was raised by loving parents who stayed together and never divorced… within a family that celebrated every aspect of life whenever we had the chance. My mother and father both had over ten brothers and sisters each and, as a result, I was gifted with an extended family of countless aunts and uncles and cousins that was further extended by countless friends of all my relatives. Every week there was at least one family birthday or milestone to celebrate. And when I watched television shows like Leave it to Beaver, even though the Cleaver core family was only four members, with Beaver, Wally, and Ward and June, they still represented the same sense of loyalty and dedication to one another that I experienced in real life with my own family. In that sense, watching Leave it to Beaver was all very validating for me…on several levels, and I think a lot of viewers felt that way — and still do.
Coate: In what way is Leave it to Beaver significant?
Pilato: One of the most unique aspects of Leave it to Beaver as a television series that it was one of the first shows, if not the first, to present family life on television from the child’s perspective. There were other wonderful family shows that featured children like Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show, but it was on Leave it to Beaver, where the kids were the main characters and surrounded by supporting parental figures. And through it all, Ward and June may offer guidance and counsel to Wally and Beaver, but they always respect their children enough to make decisions for themselves, even if they’re the wrong decisions. There’s not a lot of parental dictatorship presented on the show, but there sure is a bunch of mutual respect between all family members, and their friends, for that matter… children and adults.
Coate: Which are the series’ standout episodes?
Pilato: Every episode truly is a stand-out, and usually when a show lasts as long as Leave it to Beaver, the scripts falter as time goes on. But such is not the case with the adventures of the Cleaver family, as seen through the eyes of Beaver. That said, there are countless pristine episodes, including The Pipe, from the second season, in which Beaver’s friend Larry attempts to smoke one of Ward’s pipes. It’s a funny episode but offers lessons in respect and appropriate behavior. Then, there’s Beaver and Andy, from the third season, which addresses the topic of alcoholism… certainly a heady topic for the time. Another good segment is Lumpy’s Scholarship, from the sixth year, when Wally proves his ilk as a friend by setting out not to hurt or embarrass his good pal Lumpy. Another great episode is Box Office Attraction, also from the sixth season. Here, Wally has a crush on the girl in the ticket booth at the local movie theater. And when he finally takes her out, he learns that having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting, as she turns out to be not such a nice person. And one of the most significant aspects of this episode is that, through this one particular entanglement neither Ward nor June decide to help Wally through his ordeal, mostly because he keeps everything to himself, and comes to his own conclusions…which are all the right ones.
Coate: Which episode is your favorite (if you could name only one)?
Pilato: I would say my favorite episode, if I had to pick one, would be Happy Weekend, from the second season, when Ward decides to take the Cleaver family on vacation to a place that he sweetly recalls from his youth. Upon arrival there, however, he realizes that it’s just not the same. The irony here, of course, is that as we look upon Leave it to Beaver as nostalgic programming, 60 years ago, Ward was then looking upon his own past with nostalgia. In perspective, there is layer after layer of a lot of retro-recalling when watching this episode.
Coate: Do you believe the show’s pilot served as a good gateway episode?
Pilato: The pilot for Leave it to Beaver was one of the finest pilot episodes ever produced for series television. There was a naturalness in the way it introduced the show’s premise and characters. Like any good pilot of any good television show, it set up the premise of the entire series, with a wonderful singular episode that told its own story. The acting, the directing, and the entire production was delivered with the perfect balance of humor, poignancy, and yes, reality… within the realm of what was perceived as real for its time. Many times, family shows of the Leave it to Beaver era are criticized for being too schmaltzy or unrealistic. And those remarks are usually made by those who never even watched a single episode of the series all the way through.
Coate: Where do you think Leave it to Beaver ranks among family sitcoms?
Pilato: I would say that Leave it to Beaver definitely ranks in the top family sitcoms of all time, along with Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Brady Bunch, and The Partridge Family, among others.
Coate: Do you believe Leave it to Beaver is well represented on home video formats?
Pilato: Yes, absolutely. I have the [DVD] box set of the series, and it was beautifully produced and packaged.
Coate: Leave it to Beaver is not available on Blu-ray Disc. Do you think more classic TV series should be made available on Blu-ray and other High Definition platforms? What can be done to convince the studios that there is a market for such shows and that they deserve to be available in the highest quality presentation?
Pilato: I definitely feel that more classic TV shows should be made available in the Blu-ray and the other High-Definition formats. The popularity of classic television programming spans all decades. Just look at all the new retro-geared networks that are available today. Decades TV. ME-TV, and so forth. What began with Nick at Nite and TV Land years ago, is now hitting mainstream strides in countless, wonderful ways.
Coate: How do the ’80s reunion movie and spin-off series and ’90s theatrical movie compare to the original series?
Pilato: The New Leave It Beaver TV-movie and series in the 1980s was vastly superior to the feature film of the 1990s. The ’80s productions were played straight, and direct spin-offs from the original show and all the remaining actors, except for Hugh Beaumont, who had by then passed away, appeared in those presentations. The film, although its heart was in the right place as a tribute to the original show, played it up as high camp... instead of just retelling the story in a straight-forward way. And for some reason, that happens a lot in TV-to-movie-remakes. Unfortunately.
Coate: What is the legacy of Leave it to Beaver?
Pilato: It may sounds corny, but the legacy of Leave it to Beaver is love… and not only the love that it represents between its fictional characters on screen, but the love that viewers of all ages feel with the show, and the love the show inspires in the reality of its loyal original and new fans it reaches every day. I think in many ways, too, the show has helped and continues to help families communicate more clearly and does everything a family television show should do without displaying the sarcastic and mean-spirited, monotone, one-note characters that we, unfortunately, see all too many times on family sitcoms today. There is a legitimate likability about Beaver, Wally and June and Ward… they’re real characters who have a sincere fondness for one another, and that fondness is displayed in a believable manner. On many contemporary shows, there doesn’t seem to be any “connect” or “connection” between characters. It’s like all the characters on contemporary sitcoms are doing stand-up comedian acts when they say their lines, as they roll their eyes to the camera and spew out sardonic lines with a rapid fire delivery, sometimes mumbling their words all together. The fast pace and contemporary edge of today’s shows pale in comparison to the calm and respectful interplay the characters share with one another on Leave it to Beaver. There’s a lot of amazing talent out there today, in front of and behind the camera of the modern family sitcoms, but there’s not a whole lot of likeability in the way the characters are portrayed on those sitcoms. Today’s TV sitcom characters may seem credible, because of the edgy personality traits that are acceptable in the contemporary age, but they’re not all that likable… and they’re definitely not lovable. With Leave it to Beaver, again, it was all about love, from beginning to end, and not using sarcasm as means or way to achieve or reach that end. Certainly, Eddie Haskell, Wally’s best friend on the show, was sarcastic and mean-spirited at times. But he wasn’t fooling anyone, especially Mrs. Cleaver, who would periodically roll her eyes in exasperation over his antics, or even because of something Beaver did or said, or Wally or even her husband Ward. But neither Eddie Haskell or June Cleaver or any of the characters on Leave it to Beaver acted that way every second, which is seemingly the case with many characters of any age on today’s sitcoms.
Coate: Thank you, Herbie, for sharing your thoughts on Leave it to Beaver on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy ABC-TV, CBS-TV, Gomalco Productions, Kayro Productions, MCA TV, Revue Studios, Shout! Factory, Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Herbie J Pilato image by Dan Holm Photography.
- Michael Coate