Monday, October 18, 2010

In Memoriam: Barbara Billingsley (1915-2010)

She was the ideal mother; people think she was weakish, but I don't. She was the love in that family. She set a good example for what a wife could be. I had two boys at home when I did the show. I think the character became kind of like me and vice versa. I've never known where one started and where one stopped.

--Barbara Billingsley on “June Cleaver”

Everyone knows her as June Cleaver—devoted wife of Ward and mother to Wally and Theodore. However, Barbara Billingsley was a successful actress in other roles as well. Her early career on the stage led her to a brief stint on Broadway before she transitioned to modeling and, then, to Hollywood where she was featured in small parts in a variety of 1950’s films. This work led her to a prominent role in the film, The Careless Years, opposite Dean Stockwell. Her performance in the film brought Miss Billingsley to the attention of television casting directors who quickly employed the tall blonde in many programs.

She’s remembered as the "ideal mother"—always in high heels and pearls and offering gentle wisdom to her sons. Of course, the heels were necessary to keep Miss Billingsley taller than Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers who were growing quickly, as boys do, and the pearls were worn to hide a slight scar on her neck. Regardless of what she was wearing, June Cleaver was imbued with a sense of style and honesty that was a direct reflection of Barbara Billingsley’s own personality. Leave it to Beaver ran from 1957 to 1963. After the program ended, Miss Billingsley took some time off from acting to focus on her home and family. She reprised her role as June Cleaver in Still the Beaver for one season in 1989 and made a variety of comedic film and television appearances.

Barbara Billingsley will always be the epitome of class and elegance—not for her pearls, heels or perfectly coiffed hair, but for the sense of grace with which she carried herself, both on screen and in life. Thankfully, her spirit of gentleness and decency will live on through her many thoughtful performances.

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