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RIP Tony Dow: “Wally Cleaver,” battled depression for much of his adult life, came out of the closet

The show was iconic, but Tony Dow suffered immensely after it ended

For some of us who came of age in the 1950s and 60s, “Leave it to Beaver” was the iconic show, the one with the wonderful parents who provided a perfect life for Wally and Beaver Cleaver.

However, for Wally, played by Tony Dow, his adult life was not the idyllic one seen on the screen from 1957 to 1963 — and now in syndication for more than 50 years. And, it remains very popular today— especially with Baby Boomers.

Tony passed away earlier this week at the age of 77 after a battle with cancer,, but he fought something even more insidious during his lifetime: Clinical Depression.

In January, Tony talked about his battle with that disease.

First, about “Beaver.”

“Leave it to Beaver”

The show that was created by Bob Mosher was initially rejected, so the original “Wally” was relegated to the sidelines. However, Tony Dow, with no acting experience but great looks, was hired in his place,

Leave It to Beaver is an American television situation comedy about an inquisitive and often naïve boy named Theodore "The Beaver" Cleaver and his adventures at home, in school, and around his suburban neighborhood.

The show also starred Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as Beaver's parents, June and Ward Cleaver, and Tony Dow as Beaver's brother Wally.

The show has attained an iconic status in the US, with the Cleavers exemplifying the idealized suburban family of the mid-20th century.

Leave it to Beaver, TMBD

Ward and June with Wally and the Beav

Tony was 12-years-old when he started playing Wally, but in six years, he was 18 and had outgrown the show, leading to its demise.

However, after ending the show and moving into his 20s, Dow suffered emotionally, something that continued through his life.


Tony talked about his problems earlier this year on an interview on CBS,

it is a disease, has to be treated by a doctor, something you have no control over. So, it’s like having a broken arm … and it hurts more than a broken arm.

At that point, I was taken to a doctor, and he put me with a psychiatrist. And I had to go to a hospital for teen days, you know, to try to clear this up. And I came out with some medication that I’d been experimenting with. And I felt pretty good. So, that was great.

And, that’s what saved me, was this medication, and medication nowadays is so much better.

Jim Axelrod, “CBS Sunday Morning,” Jan. 16, 2022

The trigger

In the interview, Dow noted that depression starts with a “trigger,” and that occurred with him a few years after Beaver ended and he suddenly was just another human being,

If you have clinical depression, what happens is that you get a trigger. Something triggers it, and all of a sudden, it’s like you just deflate — and you get in bed.

And that’s why the medicines are so important.

Jim Axelrod, “CBS Sunday Morning,” Jan. 16, 2022

The trigger for Dow, he noted, was his anger,

I think that my anger stemmed from a lack of control in the “Beaver” show. Also for the fact that I was known for something I did when I was 12, a kid actually.

And I’m actually a person now that’s in his 20s and does things, but I am never recognized for anything I do.

So, anger, if it’s untreated, anger turns to depression.

Anger turned inward. And I didn’t know what it was. So I just went through an episode of being in a funk.

Jim Axelrod, “CBS Sunday Morning,” Jan. 16, 2022

In happier days

The “blue pill”

In an interview almost 30 years ago, Dow opened up about his disease, something that he was not always comfortable doing during his life,

It was a time, it seems in hazy retrospect, of sweet simplicity -- lemonade on the porch, hammocks in the trees and virginity past 14 -- a time when the only crack was the one in the sidewalk you stepped over to avoid breaking your mother's back.

It was the time of the '50s, and for six seasons and 234 episodes, a time for a TV series that now seems to have typified Eisenhower-era innocence. A sitcom of white-bread sensibility, "Leave It to Beaver" was, gee, kinda neat, even though that creep, Eddie Haskell, sometimes made things pretty lousy for the Beav and junk like that.

Some half-dozen years after the show went off the air in 1963, things weren't quite so sweetly simple for Tony Dow, who played the Beaver's older brother, Wally. Although he didn't know it at the time (he was in his early 20s), he was beginning to be afflicted with clinical depression -- hardly a subject for prime-time laugh tracks.

"I realize there's a perceived irony about this," Mr. Dow, now 48, is saying during an interview after a speech in Chicago as the honorary spokesman at the annual convention of the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association. "You know, the fact that I was in a TV program that epitomized the supposed ideal world of the '50s, and here I'm suffering from depression. But I'm just one of millions.

"I feel comfortable talking about this publicly, but I don't do it a lot. This association here is really doing a lot of great work. They feel it's important for the public to realize that depression isn't something you have to keep in the closet. It's an illness that is treatable, and the therapy is . . . a little blue pill that works great."

Clifford Terry, “Tony Dow: living with depressive illness,” Baltimore Sun, July 31, 1993

So, Dow came out of “his closet” and became a face and voice of educating America about depression.

While he will always be affectionately known as Wally Cleaver, his most impressive role in life may have been that one.

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