Sunday, October 17, 2010

Losing Barbara Billingsley

For many of us boomer-era kids, Leave it to Beaver has been with us as long as we can remember. We might have watched it in childhood, though it's anything but a kid show. More likely we caught up with it in syndication, in reruns that were the staple of independent stations and later cable nets ever since the show ended its first run status in 1963. We might have started watching the Cleaver family because of some identification with Wally (Tony Dow) and the Beaver of Jerry Mathers, but if you're any connoisseur of TV comedy it was the clever interplay and sly performances of Hugh Beaumont as father Ward and Barbara Billingsley as mother June that really made the show.

Now we hear that Barbara Billingsley died yesterday at the age of 94, and we, who only knew her from her television and movie work, share the loss of this talented actress as much as if we knew her personally. That's the power of television at work, but another wonderful power TV has is to confer immortality on beloved personalities. Barbara Billingsley easily falls into that group, her role as June -- without question the iconic Television Mom for all times -- ensuring her always a place in pop culture and more importantly a spot in the American zeitgeist as the idealized mid-20th Century mother. Even the staunchest feminist could not have denied the positive vibe coming from Barbara as June; a good mom is good for everybody.

Pre-Beaver, Barbara was a hard-working actress toiling in relative obscurity but racking up credits in movies and TV. Post-Beaver she in many ways never did shake off June Cleaver's lasting influence -- how could she? -- but claimed a huge comic win as the jive talking older woman in the original Airplane! movie from 1980. (It kind of was her "Betty White" moment).

She revisited the Leave it to Beaver world in guest appearances and series sequels, and was always enthusiastic about the show and its important place in TV comedy history. (She did a wonderful multi-part interview which you can watch at the Archive of American Television.)

My favorite LitB episode, actually especially for one line from Ward but also for an especially graceful performance by Barbara Billingsley, is the third season's "June's Birthday" when Beaver buys June a gaudy blouse for her birthday. It's charming, absurdist, and utterly lovable, and available on Netflix instant view if you're a subscriber, or also in a version on TVLand's website -- can't recommend that one, way too many commercials!) -- but it's better than nothing. Though LitB lost a little of its crazy perfection as the kids aged, it never lost its smart writing or the winsome relationship between Ward and June. Camp? Hardly. Humane, respectful and hilarious? Certainly.

This weekend we all lost a mother, didn't we?

1 comment:

togi said...

Enjoyed this tribute very much and agree wholeheartedly. She added more that great series than she's given credit for.