Barbara Billingsley, 94, dies; actress was model mom on 'Leave It To Beaver'

Billingsley, whose work on the 1950s sitcom defined the suburban TV mom, died Oct. 16, 2010. She was 94.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:11 PM

Barbara Billingsley, whose portrayal of June Cleaver on the sitcom "Leave It to Beaver" helped define the suburban TV mother of the 1950s and who lampooned her wholesome image in the movie "Airplane!" as a prim older lady who is fluent in "jive," died Oct. 16 at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 94.

Mrs. Billingsley was a fashion model and supporting player on film and television before she won her best-known role, gowned in her signature skirts, high heels and pearls as the Cleaver family matriarch on "Leave It to Beaver."

June Cleaver was presented as the flawless housewife, lovingly going through the motions of running a home: stuffing celery with peanut butter, vacuuming in high heels, greeting her husband when he came home at night and tucking in her two adorable sons.

Later sitcoms, including "Married With Children," often went to extremes to tear down the concept of suburban family bliss, but Mrs. Billingsley helped make her show and her specific role work.

"Even though it's the easiest part to burlesque," said television historian Robert J. Thompson of Syracuse University, "there was something much more warm and human about her than any of the other perfect mothers shown on television in those years."

"Leave It to Beaver," which aired from 1957 to 1963, was never a ratings champion and appeared for most of its run on the third-place ABC network. The show only earned its "cultural currency" in late afternoon reruns that aired for decades, Thompson said.

Although better-rated family sitcoms from that era were largely forgotten by later generations of TV viewers - including "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," "Father Knows Best" and "The Donna Reed Show" - "Leave It to Beaver" thrived in syndication. Thompson credited the smart scripts and appealing ensemble cast, which included Hugh Beaumont as the father, Ward, Tony Dow as the teenage Wally and Jerry Mathers as the freckle-faced Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver.

As the sympathetic June Cleaver, Mrs. Billingsley was known for her signature line, "Ward, I'm very worried about the Beaver," when her younger son got into trouble or seemed despondent. She also had to tend with Wally's friend Eddie Haskell, who was perpetually buttering her up when not giving her backhanded compliments.

"Gee, your kitchen always looks so clean," Haskell said in one episode. "My mother says it looks as though you never do any work in here."

June Cleaver's far-fetched accouterments, notably her fondness for pearls and fashionable shoes, were inspired by production needs more than anything else.

"The pearls happened because I have a big hollow here in my neck," Mrs. Billingsley told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. "In those days, cameras and the film weren't as good as they are today, so I used to wear different kinds of jewelry around my neck to hide that spot. . . . So no matter what I was doing - cleaning, cooking or answering the phone - I had those darn pearls on."

The high heels also had a reason. "In the beginning of the series, I wore flat shoes, but then Wally and the Beaver began to get taller," she said. "That's why they put me in heels. The producers wanted me to be as tall or taller than the kids. Sometimes I would stand on the stairs for a scene so I could have some more height."

Barbara Lillian Combes was born Dec. 22, 1915, in Los Angeles, where her father became an assistant chief of police. She attended junior college before entering show business and appeared on Broadway in 1937 in the comedy satire "Straw Hat."

"Unfortunately, the play lasted five days," she later said, "and that was the end of my Broadway career."

She spent time as a fashion model in New York, working for designer Hattie Carnegie, among others, before marrying restaurateur Glenn Billingsley, a nephew of Stork Club nightclub owner Sherman Billingsley. They had two sons before divorcing in the late 1940s. Her second husband, cinematographer and director Roy Kellino, died in 1956 after three years of marriage. Her third husband, William Mortensen, a physician, died in 1981.

Survivors include her sons Drew Billingsley and Glenn Billingsley Jr.

Mrs. Billingsley's cool blonde looks earned her a movie contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1945, and she won small roles in dozens of films, often playing secretaries and receptionists. She fared better on television, earning a co-starring role as the wife of a child psychologist played by Stephen Dunne on the CBS sitcom "Professional Father" (1955).

Reruns of "Leave It to Beaver" transformed Mrs. Billingsley into what was often described as "America's second mom," and she reprised her role in reunion shows, including "Still the Beaver" in the 1980s. She played Aunt Martha in the 1997 feature film "Leave It to Beaver."

She made cameo appearances on TV that attempted to poke fun at her June Cleaver persona. She played a jail inmate in "Mork and Mindy," a gun-wielding neighborhood-watch official in "Murphy Brown" and a devious nurse in "Empty Nest." Her most memorable later role came in "Airplane!" (1980), a popular satire of big-budget disaster films directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker.

Mrs. Billingsley played a gray-haired passenger who offers to help a befuddled stewardess who cannot understand two black men who have become sick on the plane. Mrs. Billingsley offers her assistance: "Oh, stewardess, I speak jive."

Al White, one of the actors in the scene, told the Toronto Star that he helped Mrs. Billingsley learn the cadence of black slang. "She was so open and attentive and eager," he said. "She wanted to learn, and she wanted to get it right."

The stewardess tells the passengers, "Would you tell him to just relax and I'll be back as soon as I can with some medicine?"

Mrs. Billingsley translates, "Jus' hang loose, blood. She gonna catch ya up on da' rebound on da' med side."

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