Tony Dow: Sculpting a Life After "Leave It To Beaver"
American television viewers still know Tony Dow as the character he played half a century ago--the likable, tow-headed older brother, Wally, on Leave It To Beaver. But Dow, who turned 65 this year, has spent much of the intervening time mastering a different creative role: that of a sculptor.
His work has appeared at galleries and art festivals and earned him a modest but loyal following. He considered it an important affirmation of his artistic growth when his 2-foot-tall bronze, Unarmed Warrior, was chosen in 2008 for a prestigious international exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Dow was among 14 American artists--just two of them sculptors--featured at the annual world art show sponsored by France's Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
"It was cool because nobody in France knew who I was," says Dow. "The acting had no bearing on it."
For Art's Sake
Dow's previous life as Wally Cleaver--one of the iconic characters who helped to define the TV sit-com in the late 1950s and early 1960s--seemed to matter only in the United States. His selection made national news, as Dow and his wife, Lauren, were startled to discover one morning. "We were in bed watching CNN," he remembers, "and on the crawl it said, 'Actor Tony Dow has a piece in the Louvre.' Rachel Maddow mentioned it. Somebody else mentioned it. It got a little embarrassing.
"It's a huge honor," Dow says, and then laughs. "It's a little odd, because I can't get in some of the shows around here, but I got in at the Louvre."
His Unarmed Warrior now stands at Stephano's Fine Art Gallery in Little Rock, Ark. The faceless figure, gracefully rounded and supporting a raised shield, is characteristic of Dow's style, which features humanlike forms devoid of expression or detail; they are widely open to the viewer's interpretation.
"He's an exceptional artist," says gallery owner Stephano Sutherlin. "People in the art world are very impressed with his work."
Sutherlin, who first admired Dow's distinctive abstracts while browsing the internet a year ago, is a former courtroom sketch artist who left San Diego for Little Rock in 1994 to cover the Clinton-era "Whitewater" trial. He and his wife, Ashley, opened Stephano's with hopes of discovering and promoting new artists. They are the exclusive American distributors of Dow's limited-edition bronzes--which sell for $3,500 to $4,000--and have arranged three sculpture shows, which are today, Saturday and Oct. 21.
Dow, who has befriended the Sutherlins, flew to Little Rock for the events, but he concedes that promoting himself is far less appealing than slipping into his home workshop and giving shape to his visions. "I went to one seminar--the only one I've gone to--and heard that an artist has to spend 50 percent of his time selling, promoting and marketing, and the other 50 percent working on his art," Dow says. "Well, I'm not going to do that."
Dow and his wife, Lauren, a mosaic artist, have created an idyllic artists' retreat in Los Angeles County's rustic Topanga Canyon. More than 20 years ago, they found a plain, wood-frame house wedged into a tree-studded hillside and have steadily transformed the place, adding exposed beams, brick floors, stained-glass windows and many of their own creative touches. Lauren's intricate tile mosaic serves as a heat shield for a black wood-burning stove that supports one of Dow's sculptures.
Her mosaics also cover the facing of a multitiered fountain near the koi pond, as well as the kitchen backsplash and the bottom lip of a striking metal oven hood. Dow created the hood himself, shaping and welding the metal and installing it to vent through the high ceiling. He also crafted an enormous mantelpiece.
"I'm very proud of Tony," Lauren says. "He's passionate about all of the things he's so capable of doing. He's a builder, he's a designer, he's a sculptor. I look in amazement at all of the things he's created. And he's so modest. He still doesn't even really accept his fame on Leave It To Beaver. He really doesn't."
The Journey From Wally to Sculptor
Tony Dow, who was born in Hollywood (his mother, Muriel, had been Clara Bow's stunt double), was only 13 when he debuted in the sit-com alongside the 7-year-old Jerry Mathers, who remains his close friend. Beaver ran in prime time from 1957 to 1963 and has aired in reruns ever since. Although Dow appreciates the show now, for a long time his fame as the Beaver's older brother overshadowed his other talents.
When he was no longer able to play the role of Wally, he moved behind the camera, directing episodes of Coach, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and much later Cover Me, about an FBI family. Dow and his first wife, Carol Marlow, had a son, Christopher, before divorcing in 1978. He met Lauren in Kansas City while she was working for an advertising agency looking for an "all-American guy" to star in a McDonald's commercial.
Dow was in town with Mathers as part of a traveling dinner theater that toured the country for 17 months. She arranged a lunch and decided that Dow was exactly right for the commercial--and for her. "I cast him in my life," she says.
All the while, Dow nurtured his art. He had begun dabbling with pastels and oil paints as a teenager, and had a one-man gallery show in his twenties. He experimented with welding copper and brass and took part in art festivals in Del Mar, Laguna Beach and Westwood.
By the time he turned 60, his directing career was ending, and Dow made a decision to commit himself to sculpting--a career that brings in a tiny fraction of the income he earned in television. The rewards are more personal.
Blair Hayes, a television and film director who met the Dows after moving to Topanga Canyon seven years ago, admires the painstaking care that goes into the work. "He starts out with a root in the ground and creates something very organic that seems very much alive," Hayes says. "It takes a lot of imagination. I've watched the process--I've seen the frustration as well as the joy."
Hayes remembers the surprise of discovering that one of his neighbors was Wally Cleaver. "He's the sweetest guy in the world," says Hayes. "He's very much like Wally--the projection we all had of Wally, a big brother. I turn to Tony if my iron gate needs welding or if we have a rattlesnake in the yard--both of which I've done."
After it rains, Dow roams the ravines of Topanga Canyon searching for fallen burl wood, the gnarled places where limbs and roots connect to a tree trunk. He uses saws and power grinders to shape them into sculptures. While he keeps and displays the wood versions, Dow also casts them into limited-edition sets of bronze.
Several of his works were on display at the Karen Lynne Gallery in Beverly Hills when the gallery owners nominated Unarmed Warrior for the Louvre exhibition.
Did its selection change his life? "Not a bit," says Dow with typical frankness. "Not in terms of my sculpture. It gave me some credibility, I'm sure."
Whether he's in the Louvre or not, Dow is committed to his life's passion--art. "You're sort of driven to do the work," he says. "I find myself out there at 2 a.m., working on these pieces."