Barbara Billingsley, the actress who played iconic television mom June Cleaver in "Leave It to Beaver," died Saturday. She was 94, the New York Times reports.
She died of polymyalgia, a rheumatoid disease, at her home in Santa Monica, California, the story says. Billingsley played June Cleaver on the show’s original run from 1957 to 1963, portraying her as a sweet and understanding mother. When June’s son Beaver got into trouble, notes David Hinckley in the New York Daily News, "June always knew the right thing to say so he didn’t feel even worse, but instead learned a lesson."
"June’s signature touch with housework is that she did it wearing pearls. And sometimes high heels," Hinckley writes. While that might seem odd to today’s viewers, June Cleaver had a knowing perspective on the world, understanding, for instance, exactly what her sons’ scheming friend Eddie Haskell was up to, the story adds. But while her character was famous to millions, Billingsley was also trapped by her role on "Leave It to Beaver," Hinckley writes, adding that she didn’t receive any acting offers for the next 15 years that didn’t involve playing a version of June Cleaver.
(TVWeek Open Mic blogger Tom Gilbert, who co-wrote one of the best books on TV ever, "Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz," has written a fond remembrance of the June Cleaver character here.)
One of her most memorable moments after "Beaver" ended was a role in the film "Airplane!", in which she played a sweet motherly character who communicates in "jive" with two black passengers, the New York Times story notes. In 1983 she revived her role as June in a TV movie, "Still the Beaver," which led to a cable series later known as "The New Leave It To Beaver." She said she turned down scripts if they made fun of June Cleaver: "She’s been too good to me to play anything like that,” she said.