Tony Dow: living with depressive illness

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- It was a time, it seems in hazy retrospect, of sweet simplicity -- lemonade on the porch, hammocks in the trees and virginity past 14 -- a time when the only crack was the one in the sidewalk you stepped over to avoid breaking your mother's back.

It was the time of the '50s, and for six seasons and 234 episodes, a time for a TV series that now seems to have typified Eisenhower-era innocence. A sitcom of white-bread sensibility, "Leave It to Beaver" was, gee, kinda neat, even though that creep, Eddie Haskell, sometimes made things pretty lousy for the Beav and junk like that.

Some half-dozen years after the show went off the air in 1963, things weren't quite so sweetly simple for Tony Dow, who played the Beaver's older brother, Wally. Although he didn't know it at the time (he was in his early 20s), he was beginning to be afflicted with clinical depression -- hardly a subject for prime-time laugh tracks.

"I realize there's a perceived irony about this," Mr. Dow, now 48, is saying during an interview after a speech in Chicago as the honorary spokesman at the annual convention of the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association. "You know, the fact that I was in a TV program that epitomized the supposed ideal world of the '50s, and here I'm suffering from depression. But I'm just one of millions.

"I feel comfortable talking about this publicly, but I don't do it a lot. This association here is really doing a lot of great work. They feel it's important for the public to realize that depression isn't something you have to keep in the closet. It's an illness that is treatable, and the therapy is . . . a little blue pill that works great."

Gradual onset

He shies away about talking about his depression in great detail, but says it came on gradually. "I wasn't aware of what it was, but I wasn't feeling so great. I was crotchety and grumpy and became more and more irritable, and had a poor attitude toward things. One day I couldn't get out of bed, couldn't go to work, couldn't do anything. There's this kind of self-absorbing feeling of worthlessness, of hopelessness. It's like a spiral. The more you think about it, the worse it gets."

Along with those whose names don't make the gossip columns, public figures such as William Styron, Rod Steiger and Dick Cavett have experienced clinical depression. In Mr.Dow's case, instant analysts would link it with the child-actor syndrome: too much, too soon.

"I'd say inheritance had more to do with it than acting," he reflects. "It was an illness prevalent on my mother's side of the family. But certainly 'Leave It to Beaver' had something to do with it. Certainly it had something to do with raising one's expectations and establishing a certain criteria that you would expect to continue in life.

"I think the more interesting point might be that so many child stars who would be prone to suffering from depression don't find any help because they're treated a little differently. People figure they're on top of the world, so how can they be depressed? Plus the fact that these people are out in public. If you have anonymity, you can sit in the corner and pout and nobody cares. But if you're a celebrity, pouting is frowned upon. You tend to mask things more, and maybe that feeds the lack of desire to actually find help or recognize you need help."

Unexpectedly, a man walks up to the table in the hotel lounge where Dow is talking and volunteers, "You're much better-looking now than when you were a kid, you know that?" Dow smiles politely.

Later asked his thoughts about this sort of thing, he pauses. "I mean, it's flattering. 'Leave It to Beaver' was such a terrific show. But it's all a little weird. Life does go on, and there are other things. Of course, I realize, practically, that unless I were extremely, extremely lucky, anything I would do now would have trouble having the impact of 'Beaver.' We did another series for ++ five years, 'The New Leave It to Beaver' (1986-1991), and it's had some impact, but certainly nothing like the original. So I understand the whole (recognition) thing. But it's kind of like always being pushed into the past and not being recognized for anything you're presently doing."

At the moment, Mr. Dow has an office at Universal Pictures, where he and a partner are developing a couple of TV film ideas and are working on putting together a syndicated series. Mr. Dow is the father of a 20-year-old son, and he and his second wife, Lauren, have been married 13 years.

He says the first day on the set of "The New Leave It to Beaver" was bizarre, reuniting after all those years with his former colleagues: Barbara Billingsley as Pillsbury-personality June, who would proceed once again to serve up milk, cookies and life-teaching platitudes; Ken Osmond as that rat, Eddie; and, of course, Jerry Mathers as . . . the BEAV-er. (Hugh Beaumont, who played Gibraltar-esque father Ward Cleaver, died in 1982.)

"Once we sat down and had the script in front of us and started reading, it was almost as if the period in between didn't exist. It was really a strange feeling. It was also a terrific experience. I guess everybody had been in the business so long, there weren't a lot of your normal ego problems.

"Ken Osmond, you know, had been an L.A. cop who got shot three times in one year. Fortunately, the bullets hit his belt buckle and his bulletproof vest. It knocked him down and scared the hell out of him. So when the new show came along, he was happy to be able to move into something else."

Over the years Mr. Dow has kept in contact with the "Beaver" cast, on and off. "I've kept up with Barbara, particularly, and I was fairly close to Hugh and I'd see Jerry a few times a year. In the late '70s, he and I put together a dinner theater show called 'So Long, Stanley,' which played for 17 months all over the country."

Asked what Mr. Mathers is doing these days, Mr. Dow he looks a bit sheepish. "You know, I don't really know. This is the longest I've gone without talking to him. Someone told me he recently had a small part in a film, and I think he still makes appearances at colleges or wherever.

"Jerry had a birthday just recently, and I usually call him, and he calls me on mine. But this year we both missed."

Gee, Wally.

If there was a letdown when "Leave It to Beaver" ended -- Mr. Dow was then 18 -- he says he didn't notice it. "Actually, I was pretty ready to buzz off and sit on the beach and relax. I think the adults had more of a sense of loss than I did at that time." Subsequently, he made guest appearances on TV series such as "Mr. Novak," "My Three Sons" and "Dr. Kildare," and later was featured on the daytime soaps "Never Too Young" and "General Hospital."

Mr. Dow's mother, Muriel Montrose Dow, had been Clara Bow's double as well as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty and one of Hollywood's first stunt women. "She may have encouraged me to go into movies," Mr. Dow says, "but I wasn't aware of it. I mean, she wasn't a stage mother or anything."

Instead, he took up diving at an early age, and eventually became a junior Olympic champion and Western states champion. In 1956, at 11, his career path swerved decidedly when a lifeguard at the pool where he worked out invited him along on an audition for a pilot of a TV series called "Johnny Wildlife."

"Miraculously, I got the job. The pilot didn't sell, but that started it all. After that, I went out on a couple of other interviews, and 'Leave It to Beaver' was one of them. I was really lucky." Mr. Dow laughs. "I've been on a million interviews since."

In his fight against depression, vast improvement in medication a half-dozen years ago turned out to be the breakthrough. "The current batch is so dramatically improved from the first group I was involved with, it's like day and night. You know, the Prozac-type medication. I don't take Prozac, but I take something similar. It can truly change your attitude from looking at everything in a very negative, hopeless way, to looking at things in a hopeful way and learning from it."

Suicide plans

Last September, Mr. Dow testified before a congressional caucus in Washington on biomedical research. Earlier, Mr. Steiger had talked about his own problems and how he had created elaborate plans for suicide.

"I told them that what Steiger was feeling was real, and I understood that and sympathized with it. What happens is you start closing off from the outside world. And then you go through these feelings of worthlessness, where you figure out it would be better off if you weren't around. Steiger had talked about killing himself out in a rowboat because he was worried about his wife finding him and the whole thing. I didn't have suicide plans

myself, but I had general feelings about fantasizing about it.

Mr. Dow smiles wryly. "I mean, I never bought a rowboat."

"Look, what we're trying to get across is that anybody can be suffering from depression, and that there shouldn't be a stigma. People think you're just whining, that it's your fault. You know, 'Snap out of it.'

"The good thing is that people are finally learning that there is something they can do. They're seeking help. One day, we hope, there won't be a stigma, and depression will be recognized for what it is."

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