The actress who some believe to have personified the quintessential TV mom has died. Barbara Billingsley, star of Leave It to Beaver, passed away early this morning at the age of 94. The exact cause of death is not known but she had been in poor health for some time.
Born in Los Angeles to Robert Collyer Combes, a police chief, and Lillian A. Combes, she was the youngest of three children. Billingsley’s parents divorced while she was still a child and she fell in love with drama in school.
After spending a year at a Los Angeles junior college, Billingsley went to Broadway as part of the Straw Hat revue. It quickly closed but she stayed in New York and worked as a fashion model. In 1945, she landed a contract with MGM and appeared in a number of small roles in movies until the mid-1950s. Those led her to be cast in several TV programs of the day.
In 1957, Billingsley was signed to play June Cleaver, the mother on the Leave It to Beaver sitcom, and received top billing over Tony Dow, Hugh Beaumont, and Jerry Mathers. The show initially aired on CBS but, after one season, moved to ABC and ran for five more years. The series ended on its own terms and was one of the few of that era to have a series finale. In the last episode, June is cleaning and comes across a photo album. The Cleaver clan ends up recounting experiences they’ve had together via clips from earlier episodes.
After that, Billingsley was typecast as the perfect mother and found it difficult to land other roles for several years. She guest-starred on a number of shows over the years, sometimes in her Leave It to Beaver persona. Billingsley also voiced the “Nanny” caretaker of the Muppet Babies characters on that animated series for 107 episodes. Billingsley found new notariety by playing the “jive lady” in the first Airplane! movie.
In 1983, she joined most of the original Beaver cast for the Still the Beaver reunion movie on CBS. That led to a whole new Beaver sitcom called The New Leave It to Beaver. That lasted for 104 episodes and Billingsley’s character was now an active widowed grandmother who became a member of the Mayfield City Council.
One of Billingsely’s last on-screen roles was in a cameo as Aunt Martha in 1997’s Leave It to Beaver feature film. Other original TV castmembers, Ken Osmond and Frank Bank, had small roles as well.
Billingsley was married three times and her last husband died in 1981. She is survived by two sons, several grandchildren, and generations of grateful TV viewers.
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