Barbara Billingsley, June Cleaver in ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ dies at 94
LOS ANGELES â€” Barbara Billingsley, who gained supermom status for her gentle portrayal of June Cleaver, the warm, supportive mother of a pair of precocious boys in “Leave it to Beaver,” died Saturday. She was 94.
Mrs. Billingsley, who had suffered from a rheumatoid disease, died at her home in Santa Monica, Calif., said family spokeswoman Judy Twersky.
From 1957 to 1963 and in decades of reruns, the glamorous June, who wore pearls and high heels at home, could be counted on to help her husband, Ward (Hugh Beaumont), get son Theodore, better known as Beaver (Jerry Mathers), and his older brother, Wally (Tony Dow), extricated from innumerable minor jams, from an alligator in the basement to a horse in the garage.
She would use motherly intuition to sound the alarm about incipient trouble (“Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver”) in their immaculate, airy house in the fictional town of Mayfield.
Mrs. Billingsley’s own two sons said she was pretty much the image of June Cleaver in real life.
“She was every bit as nurturing, classy and lovely as ‘June Cleaver,’ and we were so proud to share her with the world,” her son Glenn Billingsley said Saturday.
The real Barbara Billingsley, who had nothing but respect for June Cleaver, was a former model and career actress who married three times and spent part of her career as a working single mother (of two boys, at that).
Yes, she acknowledged 40 years later, her role was an idealized reflection of the times. “We were the ideal parents because that’s the way he saw it,” she said, describing the show as the world seen through the eyes of a child. (The pearls, incidentally, were there to cover up a hollow in her neck. In the beginning she wore flats; the heels were an attempt to stay taller than the growing boys.)
Although her beauty and figure won her numerous roles in movies from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, she failed to obtain star status until “Leave it to Beaver,” a show that she almost passed on.
“We knew we were making a good show, because it was so well written,” she said. “But we had no idea what was ahead. People still talk about it and write letters, telling how much they watch it today with their children and grandchildren.”
After “Leave it to Beaver” left the air in 1963, Mrs. Billingsley largely disappeared from public view for several years. She resurfaced in 1980 in a hilarious cameo in “Airplane!” playing a demure elderly passenger.
When flight attendants were unable to communicate with a pair of jive-talking hipsters, Mrs. Billingsley’s character volunteered to translate, saying: “I speak jive.” The three then engage in a raucous street-slang conversation.
“America’s favorite mother is now gone,” Dow said in a statement Saturday. “I feel very fortunate to have been her ‘son’ for 11 years. We were wonderful friends and I will miss her very much.”
Mrs. Billingsley’s survivors include her sons, a stepson and numerous grandchildren.