"Did you hear that the Beaver got killed in Vietnam?"
I was visiting Amherst College in Massachusetts in the late '60s, attending some sort of anti-war gathering, and this older student took me aside to give me the bad news. In those days I didn't like talking about my past as a child actor, including my years on TV playing Beaver's best friend, Gilbert, on Leave it to Beaver. It seemed too superficial and irrelevant and just plain embarrassing when the country was at war, and cities and campuses were on fire.
But this guy knew my secret and he wanted to tell me the awful truth.
His words stopped me cold. I didn't believe him, or at least I didn't want to. Even though I was living in Connecticut while I was going to Wesleyan University, far from my family and friends in Los Angeles, surely I would have heard if my TV buddy had died. Then again, there had been so many deaths, assassinations and shocking events in the 1960s that maybe this was just one more surreal, tragic loss.
"It was in the papers," he said, "people are talking about it on the radio."
"Maybe," he added, "this will wake people up. Nobody's safe anymore, even Beaver Cleaver."
He was right. The death of a TV icon in Vietnam would probably strike home with many Americans, especially those in suburbia and the heartland. Just the people we needed to reach. Maybe more would turn against the war.
But it was hard to think that way at the moment.
I felt sick. I was stung by guilt. Jerry and I had become friends in the course of the five years and more than 50 episodes of TV we'd worked on together. After the show was cancelled in the summer of 1963, we'd stayed in touch. I'd spent the night at his family's house. We'd gone to a "Twist" party when that dance was all the rage. We ate lunch at Bob's Big Boy. But when we went to different high schools in the San Fernando Valley, we drifted apart. By the time I left for college back East, I hadn't seen him for several years.
I'd known he'd signed up for some sort of military service. In 1967 he handed out an Emmy to Gene Kelly, and I saw him in a newspaper wearing his Air Force uniform and sporting a shaved head. Now he was dead? Why hadn't I reached out to him, and tried to convince him not to put his life at risk in what I had come to regard as an immoral, unjust, unnecessary conflict?
Back in my dorm, I made some calls and wrote some letters. No one seemed to know for sure if he was dead. It was all so depressing, so "heavy," as we used to say, and it felt almost too symbolic. For my baby boomer TV generation, the character of the Beaver was nearly as iconic as Tom Sawyer. He was the all-American suburban kid, constantly getting into scrapes and mishaps, often misled by his prankish pal Gilbert (played by me), and yet thanks to his basic goodness and loving (if sometimes clueless) parents he always emerged unscathed, perhaps even having learned a lesson or two. Now he'd grown up only to be killed in Vietnam?
You might say the Beaver was a symbol of late 1950s, early '60s American innocence -- cute, freckled, playful, a little gullible. Just a few months after the last episode of "Beaver" aired on ABC, President John Kennedy was assassinated. The innocence of the Leave it to Beaver era was shattered. Now the war in Vietnam was tearing the country asunder and Beaver was its latest victim. Things were falling apart. I was an English major and I kept hearing those lines of Yeats: "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned."
In the end, it wasn't true. Beaver was alive, much to my relief.
Jerry Mathers had joined the Air Force Reserves, but he never left the United States. He never fought in Vietnam. But the rumor of his death lived on. It became an urban myth. (Weirdly, the "Beaver" series generated more than its share of these myths. For example, Ken Osmond, who played the famously two-faced Eddie Haskell character, did not grow up to be a porn star like the urban legend said. He actually became an LAPD motorcycle cop.)
Tracing back the origins of Beaver's alleged death, it turns out there was a 21-year-old Sgt. Steven Mathers who was killed in Vietnam in October of '68. Associated Press and UPI stories erroneously reported this was the Beaver, and the case of mistaken identity spread from there -- actress Shelly Winters even announced it to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Jerry Mathers said later the rumor was so prevalent that his good friend Tony Dow, who played his TV brother Wally, actually sent bereavement flowers to his parents' home.
Grateful that Jerry was really alive, I redoubled my efforts in the anti-war movement. Others I knew were being drafted. Everyone seemed to know someone who had been wounded or killed in Vietnam. In a few short years I'd gone from being a cadet in a military school (the all-boys Harvard School in North Hollywood) to becoming an anti-war activist, who would be teargassed and arrested in protests, and worked closely with groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Thankfully Nixon's lottery system, installed just as I graduated from college in 1970, randomly gave me such a low number that I escaped the draft. Watching the lottery picks on TV felt like a surreal episode of You Bet Your Life.
The violent death in a controversial war of a cherished TV star was a difficult rumor to put to rest. But that's all it was, just a nightmare rumor. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War itself was all too real. Somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians perished in that conflict, as well as some 58,000 Americans. My friend Jerry was fortunately not one those casualties. But the widespread rumor of his death reflected something very real about the anxiety and despair that had settled over the United States during the Vietnam War. My generation's innocence was dead, replaced with anger and cynicism.
To see more stories and photographs from KQED’s series about the impact of the Vietnam War on the Bay Area and other communities in California, visit kqed.org/vietnamwar.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.