Tony Dow, the actor who personified the role of America’s big brother as the elder sibling Wally Cleaver on the TV classic sitcom Leave It to Beaver, died today. He was 77, and had been battling cancer.
His death comes a day after his passing was mistakenly reported by his management team and his wife.
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A statement on his Facebook page now reads:
We have received confirmation from Christopher, Tony’s son, that Tony passed away earlier this morning, with his loving family at his side to see him through this journey. We know that the world is collectively saddened by the loss of this incredible man. He gave so much to us all and was loved by so many. One fan said it best—”It is rare when there is a person who is so universally loved like Tony.”
Our heart goes out to Tony’s wife, Lauren, who will miss her soulmate of 42 years…To his son, Christopher, who will dearly miss his father, who was also his best friend…to his daughter-in-law, Melissa, who loved him like her own father…To his Granddaughter, Tyla, who will undoubtedly carry on her Grandfather’s kind soul, To his Brother Dion and Sister-in-Law, Judy, and to all of his extended family and friends. Words cannot express how much we will all feel his absence, but will cherish the memories he left to each and every one of us.
Christopher has stated: Although this is a very sad day, I have comfort and peace that he is in a better place. He was the best Dad anyone could ask for. He was my coach, my mentor, my voice of reason, my best friend, my best man in my wedding, and my hero. My wife said something powerful and shows the kind of man he was. She said: “Tony was such a kind man. He had such a huge heart and I’ve never heard Tony say a bad or negative thing about anyone.”
We respectfully ask that everyone give the family privacy in their time of mourning.
Dow played the the amiable, protective Wally to Jerry Mathers’ Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver on the quintessential family sitcom of the late 1950s and early ’60s (the series ran in primetime from 1957-63 and has played in syndication ever since). The two boys, whose weekly adventures and lighthearted trouble-making set the tone for sibling camaraderie of the era, were sons to June and Ward Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont).
Wally was often Beaver’s protector against the elder boy’s best friend, the two-faced wiseguy Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond, who died in 2020).
As the series progressed, Dow aged into a teen heartthrob, with episodes increasingly focusing on his high school romances and shifting attention away from the mischievous goings-on of star Mathers’ Beaver. Watch Mathers talk about Dow in an interview for the Television Academy Foundation here:
Last week, Dow’s Facebook page noted the actor’s health battles, posting: “As we are sure you can imagine, this has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs as Tony continues his fight with cancer. Tony has been in and out of the hospital with various complications and treatments. He and [wife] Lauren have been trying to maintain a positive spirit, though at times this proves difficult. The outpouring of love and concern from all of you certainly helps to ease this, and for that we thank you. We will post again when there is more to report. Until then, keep the good thoughts coming.”
Dow, who pivoted from acting in his later years to become a noted and successful sculptor, was born April 13, 1945, in Hollywood, and initially set his sights on swimming and diving. He was a Junior Olympics diving champ before attending a casting call for the show that would be Leave It to Beaver.
Although Wally was, and would remain, his signature role, Dow continued acting after the series went off the air, appearing in other TV series including My Three Sons, Dr. Kildare and Mr. Novak. He left acting temporarily for several years in the late 1960s to serve in the National Guard. Later, he made appearances in episodic shows such as Adam-12, Knight Rider, Square Pegs and The Hardy Boys.
He reprised his most famous role in the 1980s update series The New Leave It to Beaver and wrote an episode of that series.
Like Mathers and other child actors of the age, Dow would face a challenge in breaking through the typecasting that forever pegged him as the wholesome, popular and good-natured Wally. Some of his subsequent appearances played off his well-known character: In 2003, for example, he showed up in the comedy Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star.
During the 1970s he supplemented his acting career with jobs in construction and would develop his skills in woodworking and homebuilding. He would settle into a life among an artistic community in the Santa Monica Mountains with his wife Lauren.
In his show business career, Dow eventually moved toward directing, beginning with a 1989 episode of The New Lassie. Other directing credits include Get a Life, Harry and the Hendersons, Coach, Babylon 5 — starring fellow former child star Billy Mumy — Crusade and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
In the early 2000s, Dow began to devote his energies full time to creating artworks, developing a style using burl wood found in the hills around his home to sculpt abstract designs that he would then bronze. He was one of three United States sculptors chosen for the 2008 Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts exhibition at the Louvre.
“My goal,” he said, “from the time I was old enough to think about things was to live a creative life.”
Dow was an outspoken advocate for people suffering from depression, and chronicled his own struggles with the disease in a series of self-help videos.
In an appearance earlier this year on CBS Sunday Morning, Dow reflected on his bouts with clinical depression, saying, “Depression isn’t something you can say ‘cheer up’ about.” He said his early experience with the disease, while in his 20s, arose out of his conflicted feelings over his early fame.
“I think my anger stemmed from a lack of control in the Beaver show,” he said, “and also the fact that I was known for something I did when I was 12, a kid, and was now a person in his 20s who does things but was never recognized for anything I did. Anger, if its untreated, turns into depression. Anger turned inward.”
Dow is survived by is wife of 42 years Lauren Shulkind, son Christopher (from his first marriage to Carol Marlow), a brother and a granddaughter.
On Tuesday, Dow’s representatives mistakenly posted on Facebook that the actor had passed, attributing the confusion to the distraught state of his wife. “As we are sure you can understand, this has been a very trying time for her,” wrote Frank Bilotta and Renee James, who represented Dow in his career as a sculptor.
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