The Real Beav: Rick Connelly inspired his sitcom-writing dad’s scripts

Author Rick Connelly, the real inspiration for Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver on “Leave It to “Beaver,” recently moved to the PebbleCreek retirement community in Goodyear. (Enrique Garcia/Contributor)

By Jimmy Magahern

In “Bel-Air,” the hit 2022 reboot of the ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the comedy is reimagined as a gritty drama, recasting once beloved characters as deeply flawed individuals and replacing the reliable comic relief of the Carlton Dance with a recurring “Scarface” snort from the beleaguered Banks son.

Now imagine an even grittier reboot set in Bel-Air, this one a dramatic reworking of “Leave It to Beaver,” examining the real lives of the idyllic middle-class Cleaver family as they navigate the turmoil of the late 1960s.

That’s the between-the-lines story that runs throughout the recently published book “Not Really Hollywood,” where author Rick Connelly, who recently moved from Pebble Beach, California, to the PebbleCreek retirement community in Goodyear, details his wonder years as the real-life kid whose antics inspired the classic TV character Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver.

“I basically wrote it to give something to my grandchildren,” the now-73-year-old says, FaceTiming from his home office. “Because they’ll probably still be watching ‘Leave It to Beaver’ when they get older, and may wonder about how their great-grandfather came up with all those stories.”

Rick’s dad was screenwriting legend Joe Connelly, who, along with writing partner Bob Mosher, created the archetypal family comedy that broke new ground by being told from the children’s point of view. 

Even today, the show is most revered for how it authentically captured the way kids really talked in the late ’50s and early ’60s — and essentially still do today.

Turns out, the kids’ voices sounded authentic because Joe followed his own kids around with a notebook, capturing every juvenescent gem for story ideas and dialogue. 

Decades before social media would create influencers out of ordinary adolescents, Joe was creating scripts for Beaver and Wally based on the dopey day-to-day doings of a young Rick and his older brother Jay.

“That’s absolutely true about the notebook,” says Rick, although he confesses he didn’t actually watch the show much growing up. He only learned his dad was mining his minions for material about a year into the show’s six-season run, when he accompanied his dad and stars Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow on a photo op in Iowa.

It was there Joe asked young autograph seekers shunned by the stars, “Do you want to meet the real Beav?” That’s when Rick learned his antics around the house were being weaved into TV comedy gold.

Not that junior’s muse status allowed him to shrug off broken windows or accidentally drilled-through garage doors as mere script fodder. Did Rick’s golden goose ever try to wriggle out of a jam by saying, “Gee, Dad, wouldn’t this make for a great episode?”

“No!” Rick says, emphatically. “I mean, yeah, I was the kid who pulled the blinds down when I broke a window so my parents wouldn’t see it” — a dirty deed that became a “Leave It to Beaver” plot line. “And maybe my dad put up with me a little more than other dads would have because he could see the humor in things like that.” If anything, Rick would sometimes become annoyed by how his preteen tribulations always drew laughs around the dinner table.

“One time something came up and I remember storming away from the kids’ table in a huff, and as I was walking up the stairs I turned and said, ‘I’m not going to give you any more lines for your TV show!’” Rick says with a laugh.

“But I also wasn’t as wild when I was younger, which was when the show was going on. I got into more trouble as I got older.” Thankfully, he says, his dad stopped following him around with a notebook by then.

Dark side of the Beaver

Rick shudders to think what a gritty reboot of “Leave It to Beaver” might look like if his dad had continued to mine his and his brother’s antics as they grew up in wealthy Bel-Air during the latter half of the Swinging Sixties.

“There is no way that would’ve ever made the air!” he laughs. But readers can sample the anecdotes in his book and imagine their own plot lines.

In the pilot episode of the rebooted “Leave It to Beaver,” Ward Cleaver, now a widower, takes the boys on a vacation to Rome, where now 14-year-old Theodore, whose childhood nickname has begun to draw snickers from his peers, begrudgingly agrees to serve as altar boy at the Vatican. But the adolescent Beaver is more interested in eyeing the women on the Italian beaches, where he’s introduced to topless sunbathing.

Later in the season, Ward walks in on Beaver smoking a joint. But rather than punish him, Ward ridicules his now-teenaged son’s choice of cannabis, bragging about the grade-A hash he used to smoke in the Merchant Marines. Beaver instantly loses all interest in marijuana.

In another episode, Eddie Haskell, now revealed to be a dangerous delinquent with a checkered past, tries to talk Wally into joining his street gang, which he gallantly passes off to the Cleavers as a roving coin collector club.

All these scenarios might have made it onto TV screens if Joe had continued to document his personal family life in sitcom scripts — the real-life stories, minus the imagined comedic tweaks, are all in Rick’s book.

But at some point, the Connellys’ lifestyle veered far away from that of the middle-class Cleavers. By the mid-’60s, Joe and Mosher were successful screenwriters and producers, having added “The Munsters” to their string of hits, and the Connellys were living large on the secluded hills of Bel-Air.

“We had the maids, the butlers, the chauffeurs,” Rick says. “It was a different life — but very enjoyable!” Not surprisingly, the excesses of the era collided with the maturing Connelly kids’ excess wealth — and not always in a good way. Rick says his brother Jay, once the model for Wally, got into some “dark moments” he didn’t even want to include in the book, particularly since Jay is now gone. “We kept a lot of stuff with him out of the book.”

Ditto for the real Haskell, the model for Wally’s rascally best friend. Rick says the real-life counterpart for the TV troublemaker actually ran with the West LA gangs and was “a lot meaner” than Haskell. “But I can’t tell you his name,” he says. “All I can say is his dad was a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times.”

If anything’s lacking in “Not Really Hollywood,” it’s that it strategically stops short of being a tell-all. Rick says his own wife, Stephanie, has always laughed at the absurdity of the “Real Beav” moniker he’s been saddled with since before they wed. In a 1985 article for the Chicago Tribune, she called Mathers “the wimpy Beav” and said her husband was always “more into experimenting with life … getting into trouble, doing deviant things.”

That full story may never be told. “I wanted to keep it, let’s say, PG,” Rick says. “Putting in racy stuff to sell books wasn’t as important to me as just having the book for the grandkids.” Plus, he adds, “I’m not sure the world wants to read that.”

Protecting the legacy

“Leave It to Beaver” is, after all, an iconic show that represents a certain idealized view of the American family. And the Connellys, as well as the family of Mosher, who died in 1972 at age 57 (Joe passed away at age 85 in 2003), are effectively protectors of that legacy.

“We still own the show, and it works out very well for both families,” Rick says. “We are in partnerships with what’s now called NBC Universal. They own 50% of the show, the Connellys own 25% and the Mosher family owns 25%. So, it keeps on going for us.”

As such, there’s little incentive to do anything that might taint the mythology of the show. And even previous efforts to recapture the magic of “Leave It to Beaver,” in the 1983 reunion telemovie “Still the Beaver” and the made-for-cable TV series “The New Leave It to Beaver” (1984 to 1989), have fallen short.

Rick is excited about the upcoming Rob Zombie-directed reboot of “The Munsters,” with surprisingly faithful character costuming and visual style — not to mention a planned PG rating. But he doesn’t expect that gritty dramatic reboot of “Leave It to Beaver” to happen anytime soon.

“I think they’re pretty well done with the remakes,” Rick says. “But let’s put it this way: The Beaver doesn’t go away. And like I said, when the grandkids are older, they’ll probably be still watching this show, which is tremendous for my dad.”

“Not Really Hollywood” by Rick Connelly

Available on Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble, among other retailers