Barbara Billingsley: TV Mom, Jive Talker, Fashion Expert

Because “Leave It To Beaver” isn’t as ubiquitous in syndication as it used to be, reactions to the death of Barbara Billingsley at age 94 revealed that at this point she may be better known as the jive-talking old lady in Airplane! But of course June Cleaver is her definitive role; she got the part in Airplane! because all three directors were huge Leave It To Beaver fans. (One of them says on the commentary that the high point of doing the Kentucky Fried Theatre in L.A. was “the night ‘Lumpy’ showed up.”) It was a great show, well worth the cost of Shout! Factory’s complete set, and she was one of the best TV moms ever, despite the pearls and high heels — she became understandably irritated about having to explain them in every interview. (The pearls were to cover up a hollow in her neck; the heels were to make it less clear that the boys were getting taller.) Ward and June Cleaver are difficult characters to pull off because the show is not about them — it was the first TV family comedy that was about the kids — and yet the scripts require them to be more than just the generic parents who lecture the kids when they get in trouble. The idea that comes through in many of the scripts is that June and Ward aren’t completely sure how to be parents, or what it means to be a parent in a changing world. Many of their conversations have to do with the way things have changed since they were kids, and whether the things they remember are applicable to their own children. So they have to be simultaneously old-fashioned and modern: old-fashioned, because their instincts are old-fashioned; modern, because they’re the hippest parents on the block. Billingsley brought her natural sense of humour and intelligence to June, and made her the ideal TV mom: with-it in her own way — particularly when it came to seeing through Eddie Haskell — and a perfect mix of old-fashioned values and modern assertiveness.

Like many TV stars of the ’50s, she’s also an advertisement for the power of television to give an actor a break that he or she could never quite get on movies or on stage. I think it was Mad magazine that made jokes about how TV put Broadway and film stars on parity with moderately successful B-movie actors, and Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont are both examples of people who hit it big on television after years of not quite hitting it big in movies.

Here is one of Billingsley’s small movie roles from the pre-Beaver days, her appearance as a costume designer in my favourite Hollywood movie about Hollywood, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. All the characters in the movie are amalgams of various real people from Hollywood (Kirk Douglas’s character is mostly David O. Selznick with a bit of Val Lewton thrown in; Leo G. Carroll’s British director is a thinner Alfred Hitchcock, and Kathleen Freeman is Hitchcock’s wife Alma Revile), and the likeliest model for Billingsley’s character is Helen Rose, the movie’s actual costume designer. Note that she’s wearing pearls here, too.

Also: did June ever say “Ward, you were a little hard on the Beaver last night?” Because that seems to be the line that people who have never seen the show quote most often in reference to it, and it has an urban legend feel to me.

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