Barbara Billingsley died died today, two months before her 95th birthday. She was best-known role, that of June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver and its sequel Still the Beaver (also known as The New Leave It to Beaver).
With a year at Los Angeles Junior College behind her, Billingsley traveled to Broadway, when Straw Hat, a revue in which she was appearing, attracted enough attention to send it to New York. When, after five days, the show closed, she took an apartment on 57th Street and went to work as a $60-a-week fashion model. She also landed a contract with MGM Studios in 1945. While in one of William Self's plays, she followed Ronald Reagan, after co-starring in one of her plays.
She usually had uncredited roles in major motion picture productions in the 1940s. These roles continued into the first half of the 1950s with The Bad and the Beautiful, Three Guys Named Mike, opposite Jane Wyman, as well as the sci-fi story Invaders from Mars (1953). Her film experience led to roles on the sitcoms Professional Father (with Stephen Dunne and Beverly Washburn) and The Brothers as well as an appearance with David Niven on his anthology series Four Star Playhouse. In 1957, she guest starred in the episode "That Magazine" of the CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve, starring Howard Duff and Ida Lupino. She co-starred opposite Dean Stockwell and Natalie Trundy in The Careless Years, which was her first and only major role in the movies.
In 1952, Billingsley had her first guest-starring role on an episode of The Abbott and Costello Show. The part led to other roles on The Lone Wolf, two episodes of City Detective, The Pride of the Family, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Letter to Loretta, General Electric Summer Originals, You Are There, Cavalcade of America, Panic!, Mr. Adams and Eve, The Love Boat, Silver Spoons, Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Mike Hammer, Empty Nest, among many others. She reprised her June Cleaver role three times, in Amazing Stories, Baby Boom and Roseanne. She also guest-starred on an episode of Make Room For Daddy, which she played the character of Danny Thomas's TV date, which producers strongly considered casting her as his second wife, though they decided against it.
After Billingsley signed a contract with Universal Studios in 1957, she made her mark on TV as everyday mother June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver, which proved to be a match for other 1950s family sitcoms such as Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Make Room For Daddy and The Donna Reed Show. It debuted on CBS in 1957, to mediocre ratings and was soon cancelled. However, the show moved to ABC the following year and stayed there for the next five seasons. The show was featured in over 100 countries. Also starring on Beaver were Hugh Beaumont, in the role of Ward Cleaver, June's husband and the kids' father, as well as two unfamiliar child actors, Tony Dow in the role of Wally Cleaver and Jerry Mathers as Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver.
In the show, Billingsley often could be seen doing household chores wearing pearls and earrings. The pearls were her idea, which in real-life is actually her trademark. The actress has what she termed "a hollow" on her neck and thought that wearing a strand of pearls could cover it up for the cameras. In later seasons of the show, she also started wearing high heels to compensate for the fact that the actors who played her sons were growing up and getting taller than she was. The sitcom proved to be very lucrative for Billingsley.
After six seasons and 234 episodes, the still-popular series was finally canceled due to Billingsley and the rest of her castmates wanting to move on to other projects, especially Mathers, who retired from acting to enter his freshman year in high school. All the Leave It to Beaver actors got along well on-camera and off with Billingsley, especially Mathers, who once stated: "Barbara Billingsley has always been great. Barbara Billingsley is one of my favorite people, and she knows it."
After the show's cancellation, Mathers remained her close friend for over 45 years. They were reunited on The New Leave It to Beaver. Billingsley, Mathers, Dow, Frank Bank and Ken Osmond also celebrated the show's 50th anniversary.
When production of the show ended in 1963, Billingsley had become typecast as saccharine sweet and had trouble obtaining acting jobs for years. She traveled extensively abroad until the late 1970s. After an absence of 17 years from the public eye (other than appearing in two episodes of The F.B.I. in 1971), Billingsley spoofed her wholesome image with a brief appearance in the comedy Airplane! (1980), as a passenger who could "speak jive". She became the voice of Nanny and The Little Train on Muppet Babies from 1984 to 1991.
Billingsley appeared with Robin Williams and Pam Dawber in a 1982 episode of Mork & Mindy. She appeared in a Leave It to Beaver reunion television movie entitled Still the Beaver in 1983. Hugh Beaumont had died the year before of a heart attack, so she played the widow. She also appeared in the subsequent revival of the series, The New Leave It to Beaver (1985–1989). In the 1997 film version of Leave It to Beaver, Billingsley played the character "Aunt Martha". In 1998, she appeared on Candid Camera, along with June Lockhart and Isabel Sanford, as audience members in a spoof seminar on motherhood.
To quote June Cleaver, "Ward, I'm very worried about the Beaver".
Well Good Night Mrs. Cleaver