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Joe Connelly, 85; Helped Create 'Leave It to Beaver'

Obituaries

February 14, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Joe Connelly, a prolific pioneer television writer-producer, who co-created the classic situation comedy "Leave It to Beaver," died Thursday. He was 85.

Connelly died at a nursing facility in Newport Beach of complications from a stroke he suffered late last month.

Connelly's name is professionally inseparable from his longtime writing and producing partner, Bob Mosher. Together, they served as writer-producers on a spate of TV shows, which they created or developed, including "The Munsters," "Tammy," "Ichabod and Me," "Calvin and the Colonel," "Blondie," "Bringing Up Buddy," "Pistols 'n' Petticoats" and "90 Bristol Court," which was actually three situation comedies airing in consecutive half-hours -- "Karen," "Harris Against the World" and "Tom, Dick and Mary."

"Leave It to Beaver," however, remains their most enduring and fondly remembered credit.

The series, which ended in 1963 after six seasons but continues in syndication around the world, starred Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as June and Ward Cleaver, Tony Dow as Wally and, of course, Jerry Mathers as the Beaver.

"I think the show is part of the Golden Age of television and because of Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher. All the cast members feel very lucky to have had such great, inspired writers," Mathers told The Times recently. "That's what makes it part of television history. It wasn't the actors; it was definitely the writers."

"They were certainly one of the most amazing writing teams in the history of television," said Dow, who is a TV director. " 'Leave It to Beaver' was truly a defining example of situation comedy, as opposed to joke comedy."

TV Guide once called "Leave It to Beaver" "one of the most honest, most human and most satisfying situation comedies on TV."

"It was the first show done from a kid's point of view, and in that respect it was unique in giving them a voice," said Brian Levant, who co-wrote the 1983 TV movie "Still the Beaver," which starred members of the original cast and who was the executive producer of the spinoff cable series, "The New Leave It to Beaver."

In writing about boys, Levant said, Connelly and Mosher "caught the rhythms and the nuances. It's so beautifully observed."

Born in New York City in 1917, Connelly had a stint in the merchant marines before landing a job at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City, where he met Mosher, a fellow copywriter.

Connelly and Mosher left the agency in 1942 to write for the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy radio show. In the mid-1940s, after writing for the Frank Morgan and Phil Harris radio shows, they began a 12-year run writing for "Amos 'n' Andy," including the early 1950s TV version of the popular radio show.

Their first solo effort in television was developing a short-lived anthology series for actor Ray Milland, a disappointing experience that taught them, Connelly once said, to focus their writing instead on "things we know."

Inspired by an incident Connelly witnessed while driving one of his sons to parochial school, he and Mosher wrote the original story for "The Private War of Major Benson," a 1955 movie comedy starring Charlton Heston as a hard-nosed Army major who takes command of the ROTC program at a children's academy.

Their original story earned Connelly and Mosher an Oscar nomination.

In creating "Leave It to Beaver," they took their dictum of writing about "things we know" to a new level. Connelly, who was then the father of six -- later seven -- children, and Mosher, the father of two, had to look no further than their own homes for inspiration.

Connelly's 14-year-old son, Jay, served as the model for Beaver's older brother, Wally; and Connelly's 8-year-old son, Ricky, was the inspiration for Beaver -- the nickname of one of Connelly's merchant marine shipmates.

The smarmy wise guy Eddie Haskell and the chubby Larry Mondello characters were inspired by Jay and Ricky Connelly's friends.

"Joe used to be one of those guys who'd walk around with a pad of paper in his pocket and whenever a kid would say something funny, he'd write it down," Levant said.

Ricky, for example, chopped off syllables and pronounced words such as forgot as 'got and expelled as 'spelled -- a trait reflected in Beaver.

"There is a legendary story," Levant said, "that Ricky Connelly once left the dinner table in a huff and stopped at the top of the stairs and said, 'I'm never giving you any more material for your show.' "

Having worked on the cable "Beaver" series in the 1980s with many of the original show's crew members, Levant said, everyone remembered Connelly as "a tough, demanding boss" because he and Mosher "wanted everything right."

"Truly and honestly, we had wonderful material to work with, and they were right on top of it all the time," Billingsley told The Times.

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