In the 1940’s most of her roles were uncredited, but in the 1950’s she was regularly credited in movies such as The Bad and the Beautiful, Three Guys Named Mike, and Invaders from Mars (1953). Her only major movie role was in The Careless Years, but for a time Barbara Billingsley was one of the most well-known names in entertainment. She embodied a character who was the perfect wife and mother, June Cleaver. Kids with mothers who were more Joan Crawford than June Cleaver sighed at the unfairness of life.
Billingsley began her career as a fashion model in New York, earning the astounding sum of $60 per week. When she signed her 1945 MGM contract, an actress was created. It wasn’t until 1957 that she made her mark in Leave It to Beaver, as wife to Ward and lovingly indulgent Mom to Beaver and Wally Cleaver. That debut, on CBS, did not do as well as the network hoped and was cancelled. Picked up by ABC, it lasted another five years.
Why did a generation (or more) love June Cleaver? For one thing, she wore pearls, high heels, and nice dresses when she was doing her housework. Even with a vacuum cleaner in hand, June was chic. She was also even-tempered and kind; she didn’t belittle her husband or her children, even when they did things that were disappointing. That is one of the keys to her popularity—she was never disappointed in her guys, only in some of their actions. June was also thoroughly “American”; many offspring of European immigrants wished their moms or grandmas looked like June.
Following Leave It to Beaver, Billingsley appeared in a number of films (most notably as a jive-speaking passenger in Airplane). She provided voices for cartoons, was a guest on television series, and starred in The New Leave It to Beaver sit-com and a Beaver reunion film.
Playing June Cleaver limited Billingsley’s opportunities—she was typecast as the wholesome, nice, loving mom. This was, of course, disappointing for Billingsley. However, when a lot of kids saw her as the perfect mom, and got comfort from the idea of what a mom “should be,” they were able to balance the two images (June Cleaver and their own moms) and formulate an ideal for themselves.
Barbara Billingsley was not all that different from June Cleaver, and her legacy lives on in all of us who know a June Cleaver when we see one. Billingsley died on October 16, at the age of 94.