Friday, February 5, 2021

Barbara Billingsley: Jive Lady

Barbara Billingsley was born Barbara Lillian Combes in Los Angeles on December 22, 1915.  Her father was a chief of police and her mother was a factory foreman, but their marriage wouldn't endure, ending in divorce when Barbara was just four years old.  The Cleavers they were not.

Barbara knew from an early age that she wanted to become an actress.  During her freshman year in college, she was appearing in a stage production called Straw Hat.  It did well enough in Los Angeles to warrant a trip to the Broadway stage.  Billingsley dropped out of Los Angeles Junior College and relocated to New York City.  The production proved less popular in the Big Apple unfortunately, closing its doors after just five performances.

Undeterred but having rent to pay, she took a job as a fashion model, earning $60 a week.  It led to a contract with MGM Studios in 1945, so Barbara returned to Los Angeles with her new husband in tow, restaurant owner Glenn Billingsley.

Her early roles were mostly uncredited, in films such as Three Guys Named Mike (1951) and The Bad and The Beautiful (1952).  Her first movie of note was the 1953 science-fiction classic Invaders From Mars.  Like her earlier roles, this too was uncredited.

She landed on the boob tube in 1955, with a co-starring role on the Stephen Dunne sit-com Professional Father.  It would only last for one season, but would lead to other series as well.  In 1956, she had a recurring role on the Gale Gordon sit-com The Brothers.  She followed this up with guest appearances on You Are ThereCavalcade of America and Make Room for Daddy.

In 1957, Billingsley was cast in the role that would define her career, that of June Cleaver in the classic sit-com Leave it to Beaver. When it premiered that fall on CBS, it was by no means a success.  In fact, the network canceled it just one year later.  Then in the fall of 1958, the series was picked up by rival network ABC, where it saw greater success, lasting an additional five seasons.

Billingsley was both proud and protective of her character, often defending June as societal views regarding the role of women in the household changed.  Some critics described June as a weak character.  Billingsley disagreed.

"She was the love in that family.  She set a good example for what a wife could be," Billingsley told TV Guide's Matt Roush, a critic who hates just about everyone.  "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?"

When the show ended in 1963, Billingsley, like so many other actors, found herself typecast, and she didn't work for several years, choosing to travel instead.  Then in 1979, she was contacted by Paramount Pictures and offered a role in the comedy spoof Airplane!.  She didn't know it at the time, but the film would prove to be so successful that it would completely revive her career.  Golly!  Here's a clip of her assisting a fellow airline passenger.  In this interview, she discusses having to learn a new language for the film.

Upon her return to Hollywood, Billingsley made guest appearances on such series as Mork and MindySilver Spoons and as was required by law, The Love Boat.  Then in 1983, she reunited with the surviving cast members for the made-for-TV movie Still the Beaver.  It was a ratings success and led to a revival series The New Leave it to Beaver, which ran for four seasons on the Disney Channel.

When that series ended in 1989, Billingsley continued to act on television, guesting on such series as Murphy BrownEmpty Nest and Parker Lewis Can't Lose.  Her final role was in the 2003 made-for-TV movie Secret Santa.

Billingsley suffered from polymyalgia rheumatica, a rather unpleasant condition that brings pain and stiffness throughout the body.  It ultimately took her life on October 16, 2010.  She was 94 years old.

She was buried at Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica.

Location: Block 12, Lot 120, Grave A

Rest in peace.


  • Barbara took her surname in 1940 when she married restaurant owner Glenn Billingsley.  Although the marriage only lasted for seven years, she'd continue to use the name for the rest of her career.  Incidentally, Glenn Billingsley was a second cousin of Peter Billingsley, the actor who portrayed Ralphie in A Christmas Story.

  • Ever wonder why June Cleaver always wore pearls, even while doing household chores?  That was a decision of Billingsley's, done to conceal a surgical scar on her neck.

  • Billingsley provided the voice of Nanny on the animated series Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, for which she was twice nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award.  Here's a sound clip.

  • Hungry for some prime rib?  Head over to Billingsley's Restaurant in Los Angeles, owned and operated by Billingsley's two sons, Drew and Glenn.  It was opened in 1969 and has apparently never been re-decorated.

  • In 1997, Hollywood brought Leave it to Beaver to the big-screen.  Billingsley was the only original actor to make an appearance in the big-budget flop.  Ironically, it was her final film role.  Here's the theatrical trailer.

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