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An Appreciation: Ken Osmond 1943 - 2020
May 19, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

I have a friend, Joe, who argued years ago that the most important character on television for a kid growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s was not Matt Dillon or Ben Cartwright or Ed Sullivan, Perry Mason, or Dick Clark.

It was Eddie Haskell from Leave It To Beaver.

Joe’s point is worth a conversation, which says all you need to know about a character who was technically a supporting player on a show that in six seasons never cracked the prime-time top 30.

It’s also a tribute to Ken Osmond, who played Eddie and who died Monday at his California home, age 76, leaving behind an image that 57 years later remains burned in a whole generation of once-young and impressionable minds.

For those not lucky enough to have seen him in action in real time, Eddie Haskell was the best friend of Wally Cleaver (Tony Dow), the older brother of Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver (Jerry Mathers).

The Cleavers, who also included father Ward (Hugh Beaumont) and mother June (Barbara Billingsley), were television’s American dream family of the 1950s. They lived in a lovely suburban house that looked sparkly and must have smelled even better because June spent her days cleaning it – while wearing her pearl necklace – and baking cookies.

The Cleaver home had a picket fence as white as their neighbors. A crisis was Beaver refusing to eat brussels sprouts. The resolution was Beaver trying them, liking them, and apologizing to Ward and June for “being a kid.”

Eddie Haskell was not an apologizer.

Eddie Haskell was an unctuous, oily, conniving, two-faced hypocrite whose agenda was promoting his own hustles while he bullied smaller kids like, say, The Beav.

Exactly how Eddie slithered his way into the Cleavers’ Golden Rule world might seem puzzling today. Under 1950s rules, it made sense.

He was billed as Wally’s best friend, and the fact Wally was essentially a good kid explained how that could have happened. Wally saw Eddie’s con man side and chose to forgive it as occasionally annoying but harmless. (“Aw, Eddie, cut it out!”)

If a TV writer created an Eddie Haskell today, he would, at the very least, be dealing weed or pills. In the 1950s, Eddie didn’t even smoke. He stopped way short of breaking laws. He just tried to create a persona that was cooler, hipper, and smarter than he was.

Of course, it could also be argued that the main reason Eddie was on the show was that the writers needed to surround the Cleavers with people who were more interesting than they were.

Beaver had friends like Larry Mondello (Rusty Stevens), who had been put on Earth to eat everything that would fit in his mouth. Wally’s other friends included the inept Lumpy Rutherford (Frank Bank), who came with the bonus of a windbag father, Fred (Richard Deacon).

Without these folks to create a little drama, the Cleavers – bless their good hearts – would have eventually been about as interesting as a test pattern.

When Wally wanted to get back at Lumpy after Lumpy set off a smoke bomb in his car, it was Eddie who convinced Wally they should chain the rear axle of Fred’s car to a tree so that when Lumpy started it up, the car would lurch forward and the rear axle would remain where it was.

They did it, and it worked so well that the same move would later be employed in both American Graffiti and Porky’s.

In Leave It To Beaver, spoiler alert, Wally and Eddie get busted, and Wally has to fix the car, thereby learning his lesson.

Eddie, conversely, just saw it as bad luck that they got caught.

In any case, the reason Eddie Haskell became such an enduring character had little to do with any specific scheme. Like Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, another 1950s TV icon who recently died, Eddie made his mark through a thousand small everyday gestures.

That included a steady drumbeat of insincere compliments to June. “That’s a lovely dress, Mrs. Cleaver,” he would say before he went up to Wally’s room and called Beaver a “squirt,” which in the 1950s Cleaver world approximated calling someone out for having the wrong gang colors.

One of Eddie’s most quoted lines encapsulates his MO: “Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I’m gonna – Oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies.”

Since television parents didn’t become clueless morons for another generation or two, June Cleaver knew what Eddie was doing. Like Wally, she tolerated it as harmless – and probably, though this was not a point on which the show ever dwelled, a little sad.

More often, young TV viewers of the 1950s and early 1960s saw in Eddie a character they were already starting to recognize. They knew he was lying, and they saw that at least some of the time, on some level, it seemed to work.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that while television was presenting the shiny world of the Cleavers as the American Dream of the 1950s, the generation that was growing up inside that dream was also developing an undercurrent of suspicion and cynicism.

Back at the beginning of the 1950s, J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye lamented that his world was riddled with “phonies.” By the end of the ‘50s, Eddie Haskell was turning phony into an art form.

He was also ridiculing it. Mostly he was confirming it, matter-of-factly reminding us how deeply it was embedded.

Ken Osmond, say those who worked with him and knew him, was the anti-Eddie. He was a perceptive and considerate guy who became an L.A. motorcycle cop.

By the time he got into that career, in 1970, Eddie was such a fixture in popular culture that someone thought it would be fun to start rumors at various times that Osmond was either porn star John Holmes or musician Alice Cooper.

It’s hard to imagine Osmond could have foreseen that in 1957 when he was 14 and became Eddie Haskell – replacing Harry Shearer, the actor who had played a similar character in the pilot.

Shearer went on to the likes of Saturday Night Live and Spinal Tap. Eddie Haskell tapped into something deeper.

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Mr. Osmond created one of the most important characters on TV in the 2nd 1/2 of the 20th Century. His “Eddie Haskell” was one of the 1st & most emulated smartass best
May 26, 2020   |  Reply
Continued RE Passing of Ken Osmond. He created the smartass best friend character that got the good friend in trouble. 2/3 of the teen movies & tv shows wouldn’t exist w out “Eddie Haskell“ showing the way to play the two faced instigator who caused trouble 4 the hero. Well the snake did it 1st w Eve but I meant TV & movies. Most of us had “friends” like him or were him. Thank you Mr. Osmond.
May 26, 2020
mark isenberg
Even Beaver's Mom,Barbara Billingsley got the cultural vibe of Beaver and Eddie. We kids of that era were just lucky to have the ABC show to laugh with.Thanks,Mr.Osmond for staying humble about it.Salute!
May 20, 2020   |  Reply
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