They were the Modern Family of their time, back when cars sported tailfins, Americans raced the Russians to the moon and everybody liked Ike.
They were the Cleavers, delivering a bit of sanitized Americana every week on the TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver: stalwart dad Ward, hormonal older brother Wally, trouble-prone kid brother Theodore (better known as “the Beaver,” for his oversized front teeth), and the always perfectly coiffed, calm and collected mother, June, played by actress Barbara Billingsley.
Billingsley, 94, died early Saturday morning at her home in Santa Monica, Calif., after a long illness.
“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,” Jerry Mathers, 62, who played the Beaver from 1957-63, said in a statement. “She will be missed by all of her family, friends, fans and, most especially, by me.”
“She was as happy as a lark being recognized as America’s mom,” Tony Dow, 65, who played Wally, told CNN. “She had a terrific life and had a wonderful impact on everybody she knew, and even people she didn’t know.”
Like a Death in the Family
Though Beaver became an iconic show whose reruns on cable networks also proved popular to subsequent generations, to Baby Boomers, Billingsley’s death is like losing a close relative. Indeed, her June Cleaver was the last of a line idealized TV moms, one prettier than the next: Harriet Nelson, of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; Jane Wyatt’s Margaret Anderson, of Father Knows Best; and Donna Reed’s Donna Stone, of The Donna Reed Show.
Told from the boys’ point of view, Leave It to Beaver made the jokes take a backseat to the moral lessons of the day. Like the later The Andy Griffith Show, what Leave It to Beaver provided was comfort – which is why Billingley’s casting in the 1980 movie spoof Airplane! as the passenger who spoke jive was so jolting – and hysterical.
Born Barbara Lillian Combes in Los Angeles, Billingsley had been a model in New York before being signed as an MGM contract player. She appeared on various TV shows ranging from dramas to comedies before the Cleaver clan gathered on CBS in 1957. The following year the show moved to ABC, where it remained until the end of its run.
Billingsley was married three times, and her first husband, restaurateur Glenn Billingsley, was a nephew of Sherman Billingsley, who owned New York’s famed Stork Club. Her other husbands, both of whom predeceased her, were director Roy Kelino and Dr. William Mortenson.
Glenn and Barbara Billingsley, who divorced in 1947, had two sons, Drew and Glenn, Jr., who survive her, as do four grandchildren – as well as the untold millions who will always envision her in the kitchen, wearing apron and pearls, and saying, “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver.”