Leave It to Beaver: About The Production

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They were the family you always wished you had.

Wise and wonderful Ward. A pal as well as a Dad.

June. The perfect wife and mother.

Big brother Wally. Popular, smart and athletic--one tough act to follow.

And last but definitely not least, hapless, irrepressible Theodore, a.k.a. "the Beaver," just a regular kid trying his best to stay out of trouble while finding a thousand ways to mess up.

They're back to deal with life in the '90s Beaver-style in Universal Pictures' new bigscreen comedy Leave It To Beaver, starring Christopher McDonald as Ward, Janine Turner as June, Erik von Detten as Wally and introducing Cameron Finley as The Beaver. The film was produced by Robert Simonds and directed by Andy Cadiff from a screenplay by Brian Levant and Lon Diamond. The executive producers are Ben Myron, David Helpern and Lynn Arost.

"Ward, I'm a little worried about the Beaver..."

With this all-too-familiar refrain, June would signal Ward that young Theodore a.k.a "The Beaver," was once again about to transport the viewing audience into a wonderfully wacky world via the logic of innocent childhood. They could only hope that older brother Wally wasn't somehow involved as an often unwitting accomplice.

Thirty-four years after the final episode first aired on national television, the refrain--and the story--are pretty much the same, thankfully, but the filmmakers undertaking a new big screen version of Leave It to Beaver were not without their challenges.

"I felt going in that we had to serve two audiences," explains director Andy Cadiff, who sharpened his own comic skills on the hit television series Home Improvement.

"First, there's the nostalgia element, where people would come to see what we've done with Leave It To Beaver. We have to satisfy that audience, but that will last for about 10 minutes.

"After that, the movie has to work on its own with these characters, as if they were newly created for this day and age. For anyone under 15, there is no historical reference. Therefore, the values, the issues, the comedy, the relationships, they all have to be believable in today's context."

Authenticity coupled with originality and an up-to-date sheen. While resisting the temptation to take these well-established characters and fly on automatic pilot was the goal. A tall order, but no problem, according to producer Robert Simonds (Problem Child, Happy Gilmore).

Co-screenwriter "Brian Levant is a Beaverphile; he's basically the keeper of the flame. You should see his bungalow here on the lot; he has just an insane amount of memorabilia!," Simonds replies. "So he approached the script from the inside out. This is something he and [co-screenwriter] Lon Diamond have lived with for a long, long time. They approached it with a lot of love, and they just nailed the spirit of the original."

"It's kind of a stained glass window that we've pieced together here, different shadings and colors and a wonderful, energetic and really, really clever new cast to play out these stories," notes Levant, who, in addition to his love of the series as a dedicated fan, was also the award-winning director of the 1983-89 revival TV series The New Leave It To Beaver.

"Janine Turner as June and Chris McDonald as Ward are just fabulous," he adds. "When I first saw the family standing together, I got goose bumps because they were so right and so perfect."

Right and perfect, but also seamlessly translated into the modern and fresh. "Today, kids have many new quirks," Levant continues. "Childhood's changed in many respects, but in many ways, has stayed the same."

The bigscreen "Beaver" is the story of a kid born into the perfect family who is just trying to fit in: a tale that includes getting and losing the bicycle of his dreams, making and quitting the football team, his misadventures at school, his cute but nutty friends and, of course, his relationship with big brother Wally, who is going through his own adventure with best friend Eddie and a "mutual" girlfriend.

It all takes place in suburban Mayfield, Ohio, but it's a Mayfield that's evolved beyond the original '50s and '60s version. Sure, kids still ride their bicycles to school, but Larry Mondello's on Ritalin, Eddie Haskell "courts" the girl of his dreams with surveillance equipment, the Cleavers visit the school psychologist for some family therapy and June (whom Eddie refers to as a "babe") "is sexier, because the '90s is a freeer and sexier time," McDonald notes.

Nonetheless, in spite of the evolution, it's still The Beaver.

"The story centers around how far you will go to curry your father's favor," Levant notes. "It's something I can relate to, and I'm sure it's something that virtually every boy and girl in America can relate to.

"In Beaver, it's a fire that burns very strongly. What he really wants isn't the bicycle; it's for his father to love him the way he does his older brother and for his father to be proud of him."

"There's a family dynamic as Ward looks at Wally, who is the perfect kid," Simonds explains, "and then he looks at The Beaver, who just can't cut it, and wonders, 'What is wrong with you?' The Beaver is trying to do the best he can, but is unable to live up to his father's expectations. This is something I think a lot of people can identify with."

"All kids are obsessed with not getting hollered at by their parents or their teachers or their coaches," adds Cadiff. "The story in this movie is based on a series of lies that Beaver tells, and yet we're not mad at him for the lies. As parents, we understand. And as kids, we understand because The Beaver is just trying to avoid getting in trouble or disappointing his parents."

Debuting in 1957, 234 episodes of Leave It To Beaver were filmed before it left the air in 1963. They left a lasting impression on Levant. "When I was five years old," he recalls, "I remember watching the first episode and that I liked it because it was a show about young boys who talked like I did. I was also an older brother who had a goofy younger brother, and I liked it on that measure, too."

That original formula was the fortuitous result of a convergence of talent and circumstance, according to Beaverphile Levant.

"Leave It To Beaver was originally presented as a pilot called It's A Small World, written by Joe Connelly and Bob Moser, who had been writers for Amos and Andy," Levant explains. "Between them they had, by 1956, nine kids, and Leave It To Beaver was their lives as fathers in the '50s. "The stories came from their dinner tables, and every week, their kids' worst problems were put on television.

"I think that Moser and Connelly were the Mark Twains of the late '50s and early '60s. They told stories of a boy's life a century later than Mark Twain, but with the same feeling, the same emotion, the same affection for that time in your life." Levant continues.

It was also a family that refused to fade away. Several years after the original series went off the air, The Leave It To Beaver Reunion brought the Cleavers back to television. Featuring most of the original cast, the TV movie showed there was still a huge audience eager for more.

In 1983, Beaverphile Levant stepped in, creating The New Leave It To Beaver, subtitled Still The Beaver. Once again using many of the original cast members, the new series followed the Cleaver boys as parents, raising their own generation of "Beavers" and "Wallys." The series ended 105 episodes later in 1989, and the Cleavers were dormant once again...until the current project came along.

"I really thought I was done with it then," Levant recalls, "then this project came along. I'm very glad I did it because it was nice to get back to the basics and write Wally and Beaver not as parents but as children again."

Translating this TV package to the big screen would require a deft touch, and was the perfect project for Andy Cadiff's debut as a feature film director.

"It's very tough to find somebody who knows how to tell a joke visually and yet is a storyteller," Simonds notes. "Of all the shows on television, Home Improvement is tonally the Leave It To Beaver of the '90s--a family comedy with a strong moral underpinning. Andy knows how to deliver the goods."

"At first, I thought, 'Oh, no, not another TV show to movie project!'" Cadiff recalls. "Then I read the script, and it was immediate; I was delighted. It's the kind of story that makes you feel good. I saw that if we found the right kid to play The Beaver, we would be home free. And it worked out that way once we saw Cameron."

Eight-year-old Cameron Finley was discovered via a national talent search that auditioned over 5,000 boys in seven cities. The massive effort was aided by members of the original cast, who even read with the youngsters being considered for the plum role.

"We looked all over the country for the new Beaver. Out of the blue, Cameron's agents sent us a tape," Simonds recalls. "Cameron was so warm and charming, and he held the screen so well that we knew we had found our Beaver.

"He's a combination of inquisitive and bewildered, with a real charm and innocence. Cameron's just remarkable."

That sentiment is echoed by Turner, no stranger to quality comedy as a cast member of the highly-successful and award-winning Northern Exposure. "Cameron is just an absolute delight. He's a brilliant little child who seems to be very unaffected by everything, and he's mesmerizing to watch."

As easily as the new Beaver took to his role, however, for the adult actors, recreating characters already so familiar to audiences initially posed an unusual challenge.

"I was unsettled about the character, but then it dawned on me that it was the first role I had ever done that someone else had already established," Turner explains. "I ended up finding that fine line between respect for Barbara Billingsley's "June" and letting a little of Janine in the fresh '90s in there, too."

"There's a problematic thing when you're playing someone that people already know," agrees McDonald. "It would have been a real treat to have sat down and talked to [the late] Hugh Beaumont and see what he brought to this, because how do you update a character that was arguably the best father on television? Since I couldn't do that, I did the next best thing and cornered Barbara Billingsley and got as much information as I could."

Erik von Detten reviewed original episodes to prepare for his role as Wally, The Beaver's popular, smart and athletic 13-year-old big brother. "I realized that I am practically the same as Wally," von Detten says. "So I used a little of the old character, but mainly I was just being myself."

Adam Zolotin found the new Eddie Haskell to be more evolved than his television counterpart. "He's got a more advanced vocabulary, and he's even more polite to June Cleaver," Zolotin notes. "It's like the ultimate Eddie Haskell."

Capturing the feel of the '50s and '60s Mayfield without appearing "retro" also drove the physical aspects of the production.

"It was my job to create an idealized American town that everyone would want to live in," explains production designer Perry Blake. "The kind of place that's warm, where people are friendly and there are beautiful, wide, tree-lined streets, flowers everywhere and no crime. A place where no one has to lock their doors. We were looking for a 'Main Street' with small-town charm that could pass for anywhere in America--no telltale palm trees in the background."

Location manager Bruce Lawhead found exactly what they were looking for in the rural California community of Santa Paula. In fact, the town even had a clock tower that figured in the script. "No satellite dishes or freeways," Lawhead adds. "Santa Paula was the perfect place."

"If Norman Rockwell were alive today, this is the town he would be painting," Cadiff asserts.

The central set of the Cleaver house posed a different problem.

"We went out to Universal's backlot and found the original house from the series in total disrepair - unusuable for us," Simonds recalls. "What we decided to do was level one of the houses on that street and rebuild the Cleaver house in a way that was true to the spirit of the house in the series."

With everything in place, all that was left was to bring this American icon back to life.

"Leave It To Beaver has left an indelible stamp on our collective consciousness about the potential of family life," summarizes Levant. "As you go through life, there is a safety net that exists within your immediate family, and it was that warmth that was always generated in the Cleaver home at 11 Pine Street in Mayfield. That's what stayed with us and is still something we yearn for."

"Not a yearning for a simpler time or anything like that," Levant adds. "These were just decent people who really cared about their kids and realized that the time you share with your children before they're grown is very short and very precious."

Or, as Turner adds, "This movie is going to put the family back on the map!"

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