A few years before Leave It to Beaver became one of television’s first family-focused situation comedies, its star Jerry Mathers as a very young boy had already built up quite a film and television résumé.
It was on one such project with the iconic actor and comedian Bob Hope that, as Mathers tells it, the actor literally saved his young life.
Here’s what happened.
Mathers also appeared in an Alfred Hitchcock film
In 1955, Mathers had a role in the renowned director’s film The Trouble With Harry. He told the Archive of American Television in 2006 that years later, the filmmaker would stop in to say hello on the Beaver set whenever he was in the area to film his own The Alfred Hitchcock Presents television program.
“I would see him around the lot and he would always come up to me, I’d see this big Rolls-Royce,” he said. “He always had a chauffeur and he’d always pull up, the window would go down and he’d kind of lean out and say [imitating Hitchcock’s voice], ‘Oh, hello Mr. Mathers.’
“And that just blew me away,” he admitted. “Because to everybody else, I was either Beaver or Jerry. He was the only one who called me ‘Mr. Mathers.’”
Mathers appeared in 2 Bob Hope films
Mathers had great success as a young performer in films. Whether it was his adorable face, poised presence on screen, or ability to perfectly deliver lines, he was busy, appearing in nine films before he scored the role of Beaver on the television series.
Two of those films starred the great Bob Hope: The Seven Little Foys from 1955 and then the following year Mathers filmed That Certain Feeling with Hope and co-stars George Sanders and Eva Marie Saint.
“The Seven Little Foys…was about Eddie Foy, a very very famous vaudevillian comedian whose wife had died and they had seven children. He took them on the road with him doing vaudeville.”
During the filming of the 1955 comedy biopic The Seven Little Foys, the film recreated a fire that took place at a theater and it got out of hand very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that Hope had to rush to Mathers’ rescue.
“The Seven Little Foys was when he saved my life,” Mathers recalled.
How Hope saved the ‘Leave It to Beaver’ star’s life
Set in the early 1900s, the film dramatized Foy’s life as a vaudevillian single father of seven, including a deadly fire that broke out in a theater where Foy had been performing. Hundreds in the audience died in the 1903 incident from the fire and smoke inhalation as well as from trampling when panic ensued.
“When we were doing recreation of the fire scene, I was put up in basically a catwalk,” he recalled. “They had a curtain they were going to put gasoline on it and ignite for the fire scene. Then all these people were supposed to panic. Bob Hope was on stage doing his act as Eddie Foy. They had a ladder and a stuntman was supposed to dress like him and pull me down. That was the scene.”
Unfortunately, on the film’s set, the fire grew out of control and the people really did become alarmed.
Mathers continued, “They put too much gasoline on the curtain. When the extras that were supposed to be fleeing the theater saw all this flame, they actually did panic. The stuntman dressed as Bob Hope got pushed out the door with the crowd.”
Thankfully Hope kept his wits about him.
“No one really realized this except Bob Hope,” Mathers said. “He realized the person dressed like him wasn’t going to be able to get me. The extras also knocked down the ladder. So here I am, up right next to this curtain that’s burst into flames.”
Hope grabbed the ladder that had fallen and heroically put it up to the catwalk. The fire was only growing by the minute and the curtain as it burned was dropping onto the ground as well.
“He went up, grabbed me, and then brought me down and basically saved my life. I’m sure I would have at least been seriously burned. I may have even died.”
As Mathers noted, the happy end to the story was that he was rescued from certain injury. The not so happy part? The cast had to film the entire scene again the very next day.