Yesterday the passing of Barbara Billingsley was reported on the news. We boomers will forever remember her as June Cleaver, the idealized mother of “the Beaver” on one of the most quintessential boomer TV shows of all time, Leave It to Beaver.
The character of June Cleaver was written as the epitome of 1950s and ’60s suburban motherhood, always perfectly attired and quick with a smile for her husband and children. Much has been made of the high heels and pearls that the character always wore, whether doing the housework or heading out with her husband, Ward (played by Hugh Beaumont). In the following interview, though, Ms. Billingsley explained the evolution of the dresses, pearls and high heels:
Throughout the show’s entire run (1957-1963), Barbara Billingsley got top billing, as she was the first introduced in the opening credits. The other thing to note about this, her defining role as an actress (though she was a veteran before being offered the role), was that in an age when “a woman’s place was in the kitchen,” in this show June is often seen solving whatever dilemma the Beaver got into right alongside her husband, even arguing with him at times as to the best parental response to the situation. In the end, Ward often gave the parental talk to the Beaver, but it always seemed that June’s sage advice was omnipresent, even if she took a backseat to the father figure as was the custom of the day.
One thing no one can argue with is that Barbara Billingsley made an ideal June Cleaver. While her tiny waist and shapely gams made her a Pygmalion come to life in glorious black & white, her grace and elegance is what helped make the strange juxtaposition of pearls and heels in the suburbs seem credible.
Then there was Wally’s (the Beaver’s brother, as played by Tony Dow) friend Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond). He was always up to no good, yet he was the perfect gentleman in front of Mrs. Cleaver. Perhaps the fictional Eddie realized that Barbara Billingsley, or rather, June Cleaver, was universally recognized and accepted as the mother figure every boomer boy could respect.
Coincidently, the show was first broadcast on the very day that Sputnik was launched, and ended five months before President Kennedy was assassinated. In other words, this show was aired during the prime boomer years. If ever there was a TV mother figure for boomers, it was Barbara Billingsley.
For Mister Boomer, Leave It to Beaver wasn’t his favorite show, but one the family watched throughout its entire run and on into reruns. Beaver (Theodore Cleaver, as played by Jerry Mathers), got into some predicament in every episode. Mister Boomer, himself around the Beave’s age, never understood how one kid could get into so much trouble. Plus, Theodore felt perfectly at ease talking to his parents about whatever his problem was, and that was a strange concept for the real-world boomers in Mister B’s suburbia. In contrast to TV families like the Nelsons, the Andersons and the Cleavers, parents in Mister B’s neighborhood kept a healthy “overseer” distance from their children. They preferred fear and discipline to talk and reason.
In 1980, Barbara Billingsley appeared in the movie Airplane! as a jive-speaking grandmother. Once again, the actress showed us her professionalism and range by giving us an extremely funny performance that has since joined the classic comedy sketches of all time. Remember this, boomers?
Barbara Billingsley has given boomers some great memories. For that, we are eternally grateful. Good night, Mrs. Cleaver. Thank you, Ms. Billingsley.
What did Barbara Billingsley mean to you?