1915 - 2010
Dinner was always on time, the house was kept immaculate, and she greeted Beaver and Wally from school with a smile decked out in high heels, a smart dress, and the omnipresent pearls. While cleaning or cooking, she would always wear a freshly pressed apron. The image might seem a bit unreal, but the underlying warmth of supermom June Cleaver (aka Barbara Billingsley) has made the character the supreme icon of TV mothers, even transcending the show in which she appeared----"Leave it to Beaver."
"Barbara Combes" was born in Los Angeles in 1915. Very unlike the Cleaver household, the Combes family was splintered by divorce when Barbara was 4. By the time she was in 2nd grade, the young girl was dreaming of becoming an actress. Barbara participated in school plays from grammar school through college (Los Angeles City College).
In 1937, she landed a part in a comedic play "Straw Hat." By the end of the year, she was traveling to New York to open on Broadway. The play unfortunately closed after 4 performances. The 22-year-old looker decided to stay in New York. She became a fashion model to support herself. But acting was not far from her mind. She would later be cast in a touring production of "Accidentally Yours" starring Billie Burke.
In 1941, she married Glenn Billingsley, who was the nephew of New York's popular Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley. The couple had 2 sons and moved to Los Angeles where Glenn took up the family restaurateur trade, opening several eateries. One of his first was the successful Billingsley's Golden Bull in West Los Angeles--now known as Billingsley's Steak House currently run by Barbara and Glenn's two grown sons!
Back in Los Angeles, Barbara (now) Billingsley resurrected her acting career -- but this time it was in the movies. By 1945, she had a contract with MGM. She started with a series of nearly 20 uncredited walk-on parts in the studio's films (including "Adventure" with Clark Gable, "Faithful In My Fashion" with fellow future TV mom Donna Reed, "Undercurrent" with Katherine Hepburn, and "A Kiss for Corliss" with Shirley Temple).
Her first credited role came in 1948 appearing in the film noir cheapie "The Argyle Secrets" starring yet another TV mom Marjorie Lord ("Make Room for Daddy"). A Cisco Kid feature ("Valiant Hombre") followed the same year. As the 50s began, she divided her time between poverty row-produced pictures and credited and uncredited roles still at MGM. She would be occasionally loaned out to other studios, but all roles were minor---including a walk-on as Dr. Kelston's secretary in the cult classic "Invaders From Mars."
However, Barbara was starting to be noticed in the new medium of television. Beginning with a small role in an episode of "Abbott and Costello," she started to rack up credits in early TV anthologies ("Schlitz Playhouse," "Loretta Young Show," "Four Star Playhouse," "City Detective").
In 1955, Barbara was finally cast as a regular in the CBS sitcom, "Professional Father," (as a mother of course) with Steve Dunne playing her husband. Her character was Helen Wilson, wife of a child psychologist who did not bring home his professional skills to his own children---resulting in what the network hoped would lead to uproarious situations. Written by "I Love Lucy" alum Bob Schiller, the show did not catch on and only lasted a half season.
Barbara continued to guest star on TV and became a semi-regular in another CBS sitcom, "The Brothers." She played the girl-friend of series star Gale Gordon. The series faded after one season (1956-57). 1957 also brought Barbara one of her biggest roles on the big screen as the mother of an eloping teen-ager in "The Careless Years," with Dean Stockwell.
Meanwhile Barbara's second husband, director Roy Kellino, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 44. (She had divorced first husband Billingsley back in 1947). Still in mourning, Barbara was thrust back into work taking on a role that would make her famous for the rest of her life. Producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher had written the pilot of an innovative new sitcom, "It's a Small World," which would be told through the eyes of a youngster. Jerry Mathers was cast as Beaver and Barbara Billingsley took the role of understanding mom June Cleaver. The other original actors including Harry Shearer as Eddie Haskell would be replaced.
The series was recast with B-movie actor Hugh Beaumont (Ward) and child actors Tony Dow (Wally) and Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell). The iconic cast had formed and the new show was entitled "Leave it to Beaver." But CBS's "Beaver" debuted to lukewarm reception in October 1957. The show was moved from Friday to Wednesday where ratings did not improve. As CBS was ready to cut "Beaver" loose, ABC stepped up and took the show---bouncing it from Thursdays to Saturdays and back -- until 1963. By then the boys had grown too old, the nature of comedy programs was changing, and the series had run its course.
It never became a ratings bonanza in primetime, but performed adequately through its 6 year run. It was in re-runs that it truly excelled. The show has been in syndication non-stop since it went off the air in first-run. "Leave it to Beaver" has gone on to become the most popular and well-known of the 50s style family sitcoms, even though shows as "Father Knows Best," "Donna Reed," and "Ozzie and Harriet" out-performed Beaver during their primetime runs.
The show defies the odds of popularity. Realistic? Well, even for the 50s that would be a stretch to say. Idyllic and comforting? A resounding yes! And that may just be the answer for its continued popularity. It can of course be enjoyed on many levels. The humor is still there, the acting is casually natural, the characters are clearly defined, and the moral of each episode is still valid.
The writing is so subtly clever that the show holds up extremely well. It obviously harks back to a past era where children had manners (even the ever-sneaky Eddie Haskell) and the adults were always there for the children. The house is airy and bright, the neighborhood is clean and safe. It was a bit unreal even for then, but like comfort food, you go back for more.
June Cleaver of course has become an icon in her own right. The character so lovingly portrayed by Billingsley is often satirized mainly because of her wardrobe. Who else (even in the 50s) would be seen vacuuming in a pearls, dress, and high heels? Barbara cleared the mystery up when she revealed that the pearls were worn to obscure a hollow in her neck. The heels were necessary to keep her taller than her boys. But whatever the reason, her costuming is always referred to when discussing her character.
After the show went off the air, the cast (none of them) could escape type casting. Barbara dropped out for awhile making a few appearances, but the characters in some way harked back to her June Cleaver days. Finally in 1980, she appeared in a slight departure. As we watched the hysterical satire "Airplane," a white-bread older lady stepped into the scene with two African American passengers who could not be understood by the stewardess. With her opening line of "Oh stewardess, I speak Jive," the Jive Lady or should we say a hip June Cleaver (wink! wink!) brought down the house in a movie that would become a classic. It also revived her career.
By 1983, "Leave it to Beaver" was still running so successfully in reruns, a TV-movie was proposed. The original cast (sans Hugh Beaumont who had passed away in 1982) was brought back. Beaver was now a divorced father of two and June would frequently sit at Ward's grave asking "Ward, what would you do?" Despite its downer premise, the movie was a success and a new series was put in the works. The more upbeat program aired on the Disney channel and then WTBS through 1989. 105 episodes were filmed.
Meanwhile, Billingsley would periodically appear as June Cleaver in such shows as "Amazing Stories," "Hi Honey I'm Home," "Baby Boom," and most famously "Roseanne" with fellow sitcom moms June Lockhart, Isabel Sanford, and Pat Crowley. But in any part she would play, June Cleaver's aura was not far away. She could not escape it. And she wore the role well.
Her voice can be heard in the part of Nanny in "Muppet Babies" produced in the late 80s/early 90s. In 1997, she appeared in a cameo in the movie "Leave it to Beaver" as Aunt Martha. By 2000, she had retired, though she would graciously appear with the "Leave it to Beaver" cast during retrospectives.
Barbara Billingsley passed away at age 94 on October 16, 2010. But June Cleaver lives on--- in reruns and in our hearts forever.