Barbara Billingsley (December 22, 1915 – October 16, 2010) was an American film, television, voice and stage actress. She gained prominence in the 1950s movie The Careless Years, acting opposite Natalie Trundy, followed by her best–known role, that of June Cleaver on the television series Leave It to Beaver (1957–1963) and its sequel Still the Beaver (1985–1988, retitled in season two as The New Leave It to Beaver).
Billingsley was born Barbara Lillian Combes in Los Angeles, in 1915, the youngest child of patrolman Robert Collyer Combes (1891–1950) and his first wife, the former Lillian Agnes McLaughlin. She had one elder sibling, Elizabeth (1911–1992). Her parents divorced sometime before her fourth birthday, and her father, who later became an assistant chief of police, remarried. After her divorce, Lillian Combes went to work as a foreman at a knitting mill.
Billingsley fell in love with drama in the second grade, and during her years at George Washington High School in Los Angeles (now Washington Preparatory High School), she performed in all the school plays. She was voted "Class Queen," and graduated from George Washington in 1934.
She used the name Barbara Combes until 1941. After 1941 when she married her first husband, Glenn Billingsley, she used Barbara Billingsley.
After attending Los Angeles Junior College for one year, Billingsley traveled to Broadway, when Straw Hat, a revue in which she was appearing, attracted enough attention to send it to New York. When, after five days, the show closed, she took an apartment on 57th Street and went to work as a $60–a–week fashion model. She also landed a contract with MGM Studios in 1945.
She usually had uncredited roles in major motion picture productions in the 1940s. These roles continued into the first half of the 1950s with The Bad and the Beautiful, Three Guys Named Mike, opposite Jane Wyman, as well as the sci-fi story Invaders from Mars (1953). Her film experience led to roles on the sitcoms Professional Father (with Stephen Dunne and Beverly Washburn) and The Brothers (with Gale Gordon and Bob Sweeney) as well as an appearance with David Niven on his anthology series Four Star Playhouse. In 1957, she guest starred in the episode "That Magazine" of the CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve, starring Howard Duff and Ida Lupino. She co–starred opposite Dean Stockwell and Natalie Trundy in The Careless Years, which was her first and only major role in film.
In 1952 Billingsley had her first guest–starring role on an episode of The Abbott and Costello Show. The part led to other roles on The Lone Wolf, two episodes of City Detective, The Pride of the Family, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Letter to Loretta, General Electric Summer Originals, You Are There, Cavalcade of America, Panic!, Mr. Adams and Eve, The Love Boat, Silver Spoons, Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Mike Hammer, Empty Nest, among many others. She reprised her June Cleaver role three times, in Amazing Stories, Baby Boom and Roseanne. She also guest-starred on an episode of Make Room For Daddy, in which Thomas's character is a widower. The producers reportedly considered casting her as his second wife, but later decided against it, and Marjorie Lord eventually got the role.
Leave It to Beaver
After Billingsley signed a contract with Universal Studios in 1957, she made her mark on TV as everyday mother June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver, alongside other 1950s family sitcoms such as Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Make Room For Daddy and The Donna Reed Show. It debuted on CBS in 1957, to mediocre ratings and was soon cancelled. However, the show moved to ABC the following year and stayed there for the next five seasons. The show was featured in over 100 countries. Also starring on Beaver were Hugh Beaumont, in the role of Ward Cleaver, June's husband and the kids' father, as well as child actors Tony Dow in the role of Wally Cleaver and Jerry Mathers as Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver.
In the show Billingsley often could be seen doing household chores wearing pearls and earrings. The pearls, which in real-life were Billingsley's trademark, were in turn her idea to have her alter ego wear on television. The actress had what she termed "a hollow" on her neck and thought that wearing a strand of white pearls would lighten it up for the cameras. In later seasons, she started wearing high heels to compensate for the fact that the actors who played her sons were growing up and getting taller than she was. So associated was the pearl necklace with the character, that an entire episode of the sequel series dealt with the necklace when lost. Billingsley had one regret about the show's lasting success: residual payments ended after six reruns in standard 1950s actors' contracts.
"She was the ideal mother," Billingsley said of her character in 1997 in TV Guide. "Some 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." As for the idealized TV family on "Leave It to Beaver," which continues in reruns on cable more than half a century after its debut, Billingsley had her own explanation for the Cleavers' enduring appeal. "Good grief," she told TV Guide, "I think everybody would like a family like that. Wouldn't it be nice if you came home from school and there was Mom standing there with her little apron and cookies waiting?" Billingsley, however, did question her character's reactions to the Cleaver children's misbehavior, basing her concern on personal experience as the mother of two sons. As co-producer Joseph Connelly explained, "In scenes where she's mad at the boys, she's always coming over to us with the script and objecting. 'I don't see why June is so mad over what Beaver's done. I certainly wouldn't be.' As a result, many of Beaver's crimes have been rewritten into something really heinous like lying about them, in order to give his mother a strong motive for blowing her lady-like stack."
After six seasons and 234 episodes, the popular series was canceled due to the cast's desire to move on to other projects, especially Mathers, who retired from acting to enter his freshman year in high school. The younger actor considered Billingsley a mentor, second mother and a close professional friend:
"As I say, Barbara was always, though, a true role model for me. She was a great actress. And a lot of people, you know, when they see her talk jive talk, they always go she can do other things besides be a mom on Leave It to Beaver. And I tell them, Airplane! (1980), she's been a great comedian all her life. And in a lot of ways, just like All in the Family, we kind of stifled her, because her true talent didn't really come out in Leave it To Beaver. She was like the straight woman, but she has an awful lot of talent."
After the show's cancellation, Mathers remained her close friend for over 45 years. They were reunited on The New Leave It to Beaver. Billingsley, Mathers, Dow, Frank Bank and Ken Osmond also celebrated the show's 50th anniversary together.
When production of the show ended in 1963, Billingsley had become typecast as saccharine sweet and had trouble obtaining acting jobs for years. She traveled extensively abroad until the late 1970s. After an absence of 17 years from the public eye (other than appearing in two episodes of The F.B.I. in 1971), Billingsley spoofed her wholesome image with a brief appearance in the comedy Airplane! (1980), as a passenger who could "speak jive". She stated that the role gave her as much publicity as Beaver, and revived her career.
She became the voice of Nanny and The Little Train on Muppet Babies from 1984 to 1991. Billingsley appeared with Robin Williams and Pam Dawber in a 1982 episode of Mork and Mindy. She appeared in a Leave It to Beaver reunion television movie entitled Still the Beaver in 1983. Hugh Beaumont had died the year before of a heart attack, so she played his widow. She also appeared in the subsequent revival of the series, The New Leave It to Beaver (1985–1989). In the 1997 film version of Leave It to Beaver, Billingsley played the character "Aunt Martha." In 1995, she appeared with other "TV Moms" on Roseanne. In 1998, she appeared on Candid Camera, along with June Lockhart and Isabel Sanford, as audience members in a spoof seminar on motherhood.
On October 4, 2007, she and her surviving castmates, Jerry Mathers, Tony Dow, Ken Osmond and Frank Bank, were reunited on ABC's Good Morning America, to celebrate Leave It to Beaver's 50th anniversary. According to interviewer Tom Bergeron, both of Billingsley's co-stars, Mathers and Osmond, currently get financial advice from another co-star, Bank.
On May 6, 2008, hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, she was unable to attend the Academy Leonard Goldenson Theatre in North Hollywood, California, where the Academy of Television Arts and Science presented "A Salute to TV Moms."
Billingsley was married to:
Glenn Billingsley, Sr. (1912–1984), a restaurateur who was a nephew of Sherman Billingsley, the owner of the Stork Club. Her husband's businesses included Billingsley's Golden Bull, Billingsley's Bocage, and the Outrigger Polynesian restaurants in Los Angeles, and a Stork Club in Key West, Florida, where the couple lived briefly after their marriage in 1941 (divorced 1947). They had two sons, Drew and Glenn, Jr., who now own and operate Billingsley's Steak House in West Los Angeles, California, which was formerly their father's original Golden Bull restaurant. By this marriage, the actress was related to actor/producer Peter Billingsley.
Roy Kellino (1912–1956), a British-born movie director who had previously been married to British actress Pamela Mason. He and Billingsley were married from 1953 until his death.
Dr. William S. Mortensen (1907–1981), whom she married in 1959. By this marriage, she had stepchildren; the oldest was William Mortensen, Jr., retired Chairman of the Board of old First Federal of Santa Monica
Billingsley died of polymyalgia at her home in Santa Monica, California, on October 16, 2010, at the age of 94. She is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, California.
1.^ "Barbara Billingsley Dies."
2.^ McLellan, Dennis (October 16, 2010). "Barbara Billingsley, mother on 'Leave It to Beaver,' dies at 94". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 20 2010. Retrieved October 16, 2010.
3.^ Adam Bernstein (October 16, 2010). "Barbara Billingsley, 94, dies; actress was model mom on 'Leave It To Beaver'". Washington Post.
4.^ Combes's status as a patrolman with the Los Angeles Police Department is stated on his 1917 draft registration, accessed on ancestry.com on October 17, 2010, on which he states he is married with two children. According to U.S. Federal Census information, Combes, like his first wife, was the child of an American father and an English mother. He was a native of Sea Cliff Village, Oyster Bay, New York; his father, Henry P. Combes (1860–1920), was a carpenter, and his mother, the former Helen Merritt (1864–1949), was a reporter. Information cited on 1900 U.S. Federal Census, accessed on ancestry.com on October 17, 2010.
5.^ Only one sibling, Elizabeth, is cited on 1920 and 1930 U.S. Federal Censuses, accessed on ancestry.com on October 17, 2010. The birth and death dates for Elizabeth Combes (later known as Elizabeth "Betty" McLaughlin) are cited on ancestry.com.
6.^ The 1920 U.S. Federal Census for Los Angeles, California, gives the entire Combes household as Lillian Combes, head of household and divorced, and two daughters, Elizabeth, aged eight, and Barbara, aged four; the same census states that Robert Collyer Combes, a 28-year-old divorced "police officer", was living as a lodger elsewhere in the city. The 1930 U.S. Federal Census states that Robert Collyer Combes, by then a captain in the Los Angeles police force, was living with his new wife, Maria S. Combes (1903–1999), and that the couple had been married since 1925. Maria Combes's birth and death dates are listed on the Social Security Death Index, accessed on ancestry.com on October 17, 2010.
7.^ Mother's occupation stated in the 1930 U.S. Federal Census, accessed on ancestry.com on October 17, 2010
8.^ Good Morning America, ABC, October 2007
9.^ Mathers, Jerry. ...And Jerry Mathers a "The Beaver". Berkley Boulevard Books, 1998.
10.^ Lawrence Arnold (October 16, 2010). "Barbara Billingsley, Iconic TV Mom June Cleaver, Dead at 94". Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Archived from the original on October 20 2010. Retrieved October 16, 2010.
11.^ Nina Clare Liebman, Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television (University of Texas Press, 1995), page 70
12.^ Billingsley, Barbara (interview) (2010-05-27). Barbara Billingsley on speaking "jive" in "Airplane". YouTube.
13.^ "Cheerleader in Chains". Mork and Mindy. episode 18. season 4. 1982.
14.^ Ralph Blumenthal, Stork Club: America's Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society (Back Bay, 2001), page 13
15.^ Los Angeles Blue Book, 1990, page 312
16.^ "IMDB's Biography for Barbara Billingsley". Retrieved September 29, 2009.
17.^ Michael Pollack (October 16, 2010). "Barbara Billingsley, TV’s June Cleaver, Dies at 94". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 21 2010. Retrieved October 22, 2010.
Applebaum, Irwyn. The World According to Beaver. TV Books, 1984, 1998. Mathers, Jerry. ...And Jerry Mathers as "The Beaver." Berkley Boulevard Books, 1998.