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TV’s Beaver makes his debut on Broadway

By Campbell Robertson

New York Times News Service

It should not have seemed weird, but it did: Jerry Mathers, also known as TV’s Beaver, having just polished off a 16-ounce steak at the Palm, picked up his cell phone and asked his girlfriend to come over for dessert.

Mathers has as much right to grow up as anyone, and he has: two divorces, three children, a stock portfolio and, this past Saturday, a 59th birthday. But it is hard to look past that half owlish, half doughy face and that sincere manner: A girlfriend? A cell phone? What would Gus the fireman say?

Tuesday night Mathers will make his Broadway debut in "Hairspray," playing Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy Turnblad’s goofy, good-hearted father. One could dismiss it as a casting gimmick, but the role fits him oddly well, as does the show itself. It is set in 1962, when that decade’s turmoil was just beginning to bump up against the chaste chipperness of the 1950s, an era often represented by a certain television show that, at the time, was in its fifth and next-to-last season.

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Wilbur Turnblad is not exactly Jean Valjean, but it is not a chump role, either; Dick Latessa won a Tony for featured actor in 2003 for playing the part.

Mathers says he is both confident and a little terrified. "I’m fine with the acting," he said. "But that dancing."

After a successful audition in December Mathers was set up with dance and vocal coaches. At a rehearsal on Friday, his first with his Broadway co-stars, his moves were a little tentative. But he had them down, and his lines were greeted with laughter and applause by cast members.

"The Beaver had this kind of clueless look and you can still see that," said Tevin Campbell, who plays Seaweed in the show. "That’s why it’s so funny. But he’s good. He’s got it."

Mathers talks in public appearances about how television has changed in the 50 years since the debut of "Beaver," how children are being exposed to sexuality too early, and how parents should be involved in what their children are watching.

At some point it had to be asked: Has it ever bothered Mathers that he reached the pinnacle of his career — in his words — before he turned 16?

He looked as if he did not even understand the question. "Honestly, by the time I was 13, I was a self-made millionaire," he said.

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