Though I always have "Leave it to Beaver" on the brain, I was thinking about Barbara "June Cleaver" Billingsley specifically just the other day, thinking about how the only thing that convinced me to watch the Muppets in cartoon form, which seemed vaguely sacreligious--and cheap--at the time (circa 1985), was that Billingsley provided the voice of Nanny. The show of course was "Muppet Babies", and while I recall very little of it at this point, I can still hear Billingsley interrupting the opening theme to ask, "Is everything all right in here?" It tickled me then and tickles me now that two of my most (if not the two most) formative amusements intersect in some fashion.
Like her "Beaver" co-star Hugh Beaumont, Billingsley, born Barbara Combes in 1915, drifted back and forth between uncredited parts in film (Invaders from Mars) and bigger showcases on TV series that didn't last ("Professional Father", "The Brothers") before landing the role that would make her an icon. Just what kind of icon is, I guess, up for debate--today there's a tendency to look down on June Cleaver, but I look up, at this towering domestic goddess, whom Billingsley played with warmth, dignity, great humour, and a poignant dash of anxiety. She did housework in pearls, but context is everything: Ward wore a suit to the dinner table.
"Leave it to Beaver" was not actually a hit in first run, and Billingsley quietly retreated from showbiz after the series ended in 1963. (Fittingly, in June.) But syndication had an effect on the show similar to the one it had on "Star Trek"; by 1980, Billingsley was being sought out by the makers of Airplane! for a cameo that traded on the incongruity of the erstwhile Mrs. Cleaver speaking ebonics. She never looked back. Over the next two decades, Billingsley would alternate mild subversions of her alter ego with a resurrection of the real McCoy in the TV movie Still the Beaver and its sitcom spin-off. By the time they made "Leave It to Beaver" into a feature film in the television-adaptation-happy '90s, she was old enough to play stodgy Aunt Martha, but she was nonetheless woefully miscast. Too lovely. Too hip.
Barbara Billingsley died yesterday at 94. But she lives on.
From the first great episode of "Leave it to Beaver", season one's "The Haircut." June's reaction to Beaver's haircut is priceless--talk about an underrated comedienne:
Billingsley's infamous "I Speak Jive" scene from Airplane!: