One of television's most iconic moms, Barbara Billingsley was the effortlessly thoughtful and warm-hearted June Cleaver on "Leave It To Beaver" (ABC/CBS, 1957-1963). A bit player and supporting actress in features prior to its debut, Billingsley became a welcome guest in households throughout the series' six-year run, as well as its subsequent reunion TV movie and "The New Leave It To Beaver" (Disney Channel/TBS, 1985-89). The show's ubiquity in syndication assured her lasting small-screen immortality, where her seemingly natural kindness and patience made her an ideal TV mom for generations of viewers.
Born Barbara Lillian Combes in Los Angeles on Sept. 22, 1915, she was the daughter of police chief Robert Collyer Combes and Lillian McLaughlin. Motion pictures were a bonding element between Billingsley and her mother, who frequently took her and her two siblings to the movies. It seemed only natural, then, that she would develop a fascination for drama while attending George Washington High School in L.A., and continued to pursue it while a student at Los Angeles Junior College. She dropped out while still a sophomore when "Straw Hat," a revue in which she was appearing, moved to Broadway. Once in New York, she worked as a fashion model and toured with Billie Burke (the Good Witch of the North in "The Wizard of Oz") in a production of "Accidentally Yours." She married restaurateur Glenn Billingsley, who provided her with her surname as well as two sons, before their marriage ended in 1947. Her husband also gave her a familial connection to future child star and director Peter Billingsley, whose mother, Gail, was her first husband's cousin.
A contract with MGM materialized in 1945, which preceded a string of decidedly supporting roles in B-movies. She provided a mere voice for "Act of Violence" (1948), and that same year appeared in "The Argyle Secrets" and "The Valiant Hombre," in which her entire function was to give the Cisco Kid information about her missing brother. She had a bit as a young mother who encounters Abraham Lincoln before his assassination in 1951's "The Tall Target." Later that year, she graduated to the A-list with "Three Guys Named Mike," but Jane Wyman got the guys and Billingsley was on the sidelines. Uncredited turns in "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) and "Invaders from Mars" (1953) seemed to indicate the direction of her film career, and as the studios curtailed production of B-films, Billingsley headed to the small screen. Ironically, the year she landed the role of June, she would enjoy possibly her best role in movies, as the mother whose daughter elopes with Dean Stockwell in "The Careless Years" (1957).
Beginning in 1953, Billingsley was a staple of the many anthology programs that dominated the airwaves at the time such as "Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars" (CBS, 1951-59). Her first fulltime series role was as wife to a child psychologist on the short-lived CBS effort, "Professional Father" (1955). She then played Gale Gordon's girlfriend on several episodes of "The Brothers" (CBS, 1957) and nearly became Danny Thomas' second TV wife on "Make Room For Daddy" (ABC/CBS, 1953-1964) after the death of Jean Hagen. But after signing a contract with Universal in 1957, she was hired by veteran entertainment writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher onto a new series about childhood and family life that, unlike other similar series, would shift the focus to the children rather than the parents. "Leave It To Beaver" kicked off in October of 1957, and after moving from CBS to ABC at the behest of its sponsor, Ralston Purina, it enjoyed a steady viewership during its six-year run. Though much of the show's popularity was based on the antics of Jerry Mathers' Beaver, its most consistent element was Billingsley, who appeared in every episode of the first-run series, as well as all of the subsequent reunion and spin-off shows.
Though she frequently said that Connelly and Mosher cast her as June out of pity - her second husband, director Roy Kellino, died before her audition for the series - Billingsley's poise and professionalism made her the ideal candidate for the role. Perfectly coiffured, soft-spoken but firm when necessary, and never without a dress and pearls (the latter to cover a hollow in her neck), Billingsley's June Cleaver was an ideal television maternal figure. With Hugh Beaumont at her side as husband Ward Cleaver, June was warm, thoughtful, patient to a fault, and never without a kind word for everyone, even the exasperating Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond). She was no automaton, though, as evidenced by her frequent, oft-quoted line, "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver." If June lacked complexity, she made up for it in consistency and care, which made her one of the most beloved TV moms of the 1950s and 1960s.
After "Beaver" ended its run in 1963, the show remained on the airwaves for decades as a syndication staple. Billingsley, however, gracefully exited the entertainment business after only a few more guest appearances, preferring the quiet of Malibu or world travel with her third husband and two sons to the hurried pace of Hollywood. However, in 1980, she was thrust back in the public consciousness through a hilarious and memorable cameo in "Airplane!" as a passenger who could translate the urban ghetto chatter of a black passenger for the white flight attendant. The sight gag of the epitome of whiteness speaking" jive" was memorable and Billingsley seemed to be back on the radar of Hollywood producers.
Brian Levant, at the time a sitcom writer raised in Garry Marshall's factory at Paramount, sold CBS on the reunion TV movie "Still the Beaver" (CBS, 1983). Hugh Beaumont, who had played Ward Cleaver, had died in 1982, so the audience saw June going to Ward's gravestone and saying, "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver." The success of the TV movie propelled a determined Levant to sell the then fledgling Disney Channel on a weekly series, "The New Leave It to Beaver." Beginning in 1985, Billingsley returned to the small screen as June Cleaver, now a grandmother, living with the divorced Beaver and his brood. From 1986-89, the show was picked up by Ted Turner's superstation, TBS, which produced more originals. Finally, in 1989, the Cleavers were retired. Billingsley continued to make occasional guest appearances, particularly on a memorable episode of "Roseanne," in which Roseanne has a fantasy encounter with famous TV mothers. The inevitable feature version of "Leave It to Beaver" (1997) found Janine Turner inheriting her pearls as June, with Billingsley relegated to the small role as Aunt Martha.
Billingsley's screen appearances grew more sporadic as she entered her eighth decade, with her final role coming in the 2003 TV movie "Secret Santa" (NBC). She continued to join her surviving cast mates, including Mathers - with whom she had remained close friends for over four decades - on television reunion specials and the occasional spoof or tribute to TV mothers. On October 16, 2010, she passed away at the age of 94 at her home in Santa Monica after a lengthy illness, one of the last surviving members of television's original golden age. "Barbara was a patient advisor and teacher. She helped me along this challenging journey through life by showing me the importance of manners and respect for others," Mathers said in a released statement. "She will be missed by all of her family, friends, fans and, most especially, by me."