Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Leave It to Beaver star Jerry Mathers died in action in Vietnam.
Origins: Perhaps no single creation of pop culture symbolizes the American post-war "baby boom" society better than the
The lovable title character of the show, Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver (son of Ward and June Cleaver, and younger brother of Wally Cleaver) was portrayed by child actor Jerry Mathers. Looking back at the social climate of
Urban legends frequently juxtapose concepts such as good and evil, innocence and depravity, safety and danger, and what could provide a more shocking contrast in opposites than the announcement that one of our best known symbols of innocence and purity had met a violent death in a controversial war? (This same concept is echoed in legends that posit the military involvement of pop singer
When we find out that Jerry Mathers temporarily absented himself from the world of show business after 1963 to pursue a "normal" life, it seems almost inevitable that rumors of his death would have eventually begun to circulate. An actor who had been highly visible on TV every week for six years suddenly disappeared from the sight of the public eye, he was the same age as thousands of young men who were being drafted into the military and shipped overseas to fight in Vietnam, and the notion of his dying a soldier's death would be an ironic commentary on the social and political decline of America.
A little bit of background research reveals that this legend was given a tremendous boost by some real-life events. Jerry Mathers did serve in the military, enlisting in the Air Force Reserve while still in high school. (In a curious foreshadowing of this legend, Mathers reportedly tried to join the Marines, who told him that he would have to remain stateside because of their reluctance to risk the negative publicity that would follow if such a prominent person were to die in Vietnam.) The American public got its first glimpse of Jerry Mathers in a long while when he appeared in dress uniform (replete with shaved head) as a presenter during the nationally telecast 1967 Emmy Awards ceremony. The association of Jerry Mathers with the military was now firmly implanted in the public's mind (although he was stationed exclusively in the United States). A legend that might already have been inevitable was now a practical certainty.
Jerry Mathers' death supposedly became a full-blown rumor in 1968 when someone with a similar name (usually said to be a
Sgt. E-5 Steven Mathers, 21, of rural Rockwell died Saturday,Although Sgt. Mathers was killed in
Mathers entered the service
There was the former child actor, alive and kicking, refuting a '68 Vietnam wire service story on the death of PrivateActress Shelley Winters is often credited with promulgating this legend by announcing Jerry Mathers' death during a Tonight Show appearance shortly after the real
Prior to graduating from high school in 1967, the actor enlisted in the Air Force Reserve and was allowed to take his finals early, report for duty, then return in time to graduate with his senior class. After training in Texas, Jerry went back to school, enrolling at
A roommate woke him up one morning with "Do you know you're dead," thrusting a newspaper in his face, carrying the Vietnam account of Private Mathers killed in action. At home,
Air Force Sergeant Mathers is still in the Reserve, serving out his time, attending school within
Last updated: 9 January 2007
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