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Barbara Billingsley: 12 Secrets About June Cleaver from ‘Leave It to Beaver’

When it comes to Classic TV Moms, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone more iconic

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There are classic TV Moms, and then there are classic TV Moms. Barbara Billingsley is one of them, her role as June Cleaver on the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver proving itself to be truly iconic. It’s the part she could never shake, which was okay for the audience that has loved her for so many decades.

She was born Barbara Lillian Combes on December 22, 1915 in Los Angeles. What we know of her family life is that she was the daughter of police officer Robert Collyer Combes and Lillian Agnes, and that she had an older sister named Agnes. Before she turned four, her parents divorced, with Robert remarrying and Lillian becoming the foreman at a knitting mill.

In 2010, The Star-Democrat wrote of her early days, “A wholesome beauty with a lithe figure, Billingsley began acting in her elementary school’s plays and soon discovered she wanted to do nothing else. Although her beauty and figure won her numerous roles in movies from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, she failed to obtain star status until Leave It to Beaver.”

To learn much more about the woman who brought June Cleaver to life, please keep reading.

MUST-READ: Explore the world of Leave It to Beaver in our other articles

1. If you blinked, you’d have missed Barbara Billingsley in many films

I Cheated the Law, 1949
I Cheated the Law, 1949©20th Century Fox/IMDb

While Barbara Billingsley’s list of movie credits is impressive, what’s surprising is how many of her pre-Leave It to Beaver parts are actually uncredited. Between 1945 and 1954 there were 30 of them and only 13 in which she actually was credited with playing a specific character.

2. She had a 5-day run on Broadway

Newspaper ad for the 1939 production of Straw Hat, the revival of which Barbara Billingsley appeared in
Newspaper ad for the 1939 production of Straw Hat, the revival of which Barbara Billingsley appeared inThe Straw Hat Poster

Following one year at Los Angeles Junior College, Barbara Billingsley found herself cast in The Straw Hat, a revue that seemed to have Broadway potential, so it — and she — departed for New York to stage it there. Unfortunately, it closed after only five performances.

MUST-READ: 1950s TV Sitcoms — 40 Classic (and Not So Classic) Shows, and Where to Stream Them

3. The 1940s were eventful for her

Barbara Billingsley in 1948's The Argyle Secrets
Barbara Billingsley in 1948’s The Argyle Secrets©Film Classics

Following the closing of The Straw Hat, Barbara Billingsley worked as a fashion model in New York, met and married Glen Billingsley Sr (signifying when she initially took his last name) in 1941. Four years later she scored an MGM contract, leading the couple, in 1946, to move back to Los Angeles.

4. Barbara Billingsley and Abbott & Costello

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948©Universal Pictures/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

She made her debut on television in two 1952 episodes of the anthology series Rebound, which was followed by an episode of The Abbott & Costello Show in 1953, playing “Becky the Cashier.” This would be followed with a number of anthology show appearances between 1953 and 1956, playing different roles in all of them.

MUST-WATCH: The 1960s — Your Guide to 60 Classic (and Not So Classic) TV Sitcoms and Where to Stream Them

5. She had two TV series before Leave It to Beaver

Stars of the television show 'Professional Father,' actress Barbara Billingsley with actor Stephen Dunne and child actors Beverly Washburn and Ted Marc in 1955
Stars of the television show Professional Father, actress Barbara Billingsley with actor Stephen Dunne and child actors Beverly Washburn and Ted Marc in 1955 Archive Photos/Getty Images

What’s not generally known is that Barbara Billingsley had a recurring and starring role in two television shows prior to taking on the role of June Cleaver. In 1955 she was cast as Helen Wilson, wife of child psychologist Dr. Thomas Wilson (Stephen Dunne), in the sitcom Professional Father. And then she played a character named Barbara in five episodes of the 1956 to 1957 sitcom The Brothers.

6. And then there was Leave It to Beaver

The cast of Leave It to Beaver
American actors (clockwise, from left) Tony Dow, Hugh Beaumont, Jerry Mathers, and Barbara Billingsley pose together in a 1957 promotional portrait for Leave It to Beaver (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

In 1957, Barbara Billingsley joined Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers on what became the quintessential 1950s family sitcom, Leave It to Beaver. That show, which connected with the audience — and still manages to do so — ran until 1963. Of her portrayal, TV Guide wrote, “She embodied a post-war, pre-Stepford vision of unflappable suburban motherhood as the perfectly attired and coiffed June, who famously performed her household duties in a dress, heels and stylish pearl choker.”

MUST-READ: Leave It to Beaver Cast — Find Out What Happened to the Cleaver Family

7. Barbara Billingsley explained those heels and pearls

Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont in Leave It to Beaver, 1962
Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont in Leave It to Beaver, 1962©NBCUniversal/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

Everyone made fun of the fact that Barbara Billingsley wore pearls and high heels when cleaning the house as June Cleaver, though we prefer to think of it as part of her personal charm. As it turns out, both of them were her ideas. Because she had what she called a “hollow” in her neck, the thought was that the pearls would cover it up. And as to the heels, given that Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers were getting taller as the show went on, it seemed like a good way to maintain some height over them.

8. She was a wonderful role model for Jerry Mathers

Barbara Billingsley and Jerry Mathers, 1959
Barbara Billingsley and Jerry Mathers, 1959©NBCUniversal

Jerry Mathers truly looked up to Barbara, and is quick to enthuse, “She was always eager to teach a rambunctious kid proper civility and manners. An example of this was when I would rush ahead of her to see what was beyond the next door. She would reach up and grab me by the very short hairs at the nape of my neck and pull me back very gently and say, ‘Jerry, ladies always go first.’ And this is what she was, a truly regal lady.”

MUST-READ: Jerry Mathers Remembers Leave It to Beaver, His Co-Stars and More (EXCLUSIVE)

9. Barbara Billingsley was typecast after Beaver until she learned to speak jive!

If Barbara Billingsley had a tough time getting roles before Leave It to Beaver, the situation was made even worse in its aftermath, when she found herself completely typecast as far as Hollywood producers were concerned. She worked, appearing in this film or TV show and that one, but nothing truly memorable. However, that changed in 1980 when she was cast in the big screen spoof Airplane as a passenger who speaks jive to a couple of ill black passengers.

“I was cast because I’d been June Cleaver,” she related to the Archive of American Television. “I was sent the script and I thought it was the craziest script I’ve ever read. My part wasn’t written. It just said I talked jive. I met the producer and I said I would do it. I met the two black fellows that taught me jive. It wasn’t hard for me to learn. And it reached a point where I was as well known for Airplane as I was for Leave It to Beaver. It revived my career.”

10. June Cleaver returned to her life

Ironically, while Airplane loosened things up for Barbara Billingsley in terms of people hiring her, she found herself playing June Cleaver again, reuniting with Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers and other cast members (though Hugh Beaumont had passed by this time) in the 1983 TV movie Still the Beaver. It proved to be so popular that it spawned the Disney Channel television series The New Leave It to Beaver, which ran from 1983 to 1989 for a total of 101 episodes.

During the show, she voiced the character of “Nanny” on Muppet Babies from 1984 to 1991, and made many guest appearances. Her final TV movie was 2003’s Secret Santa.

MUST-READ: Hugh Beaumont — Get to Know the Dad from Leave It to Beaver

12. Barbara Billingsley was married three times

Actors Jerry Mathers and Barbara Billingsley pose during the TV Land Awards at the Hollywood Palladium on March 2, 2003
Actors Jerry Mathers and Barbara Billingsley pose during the TV Land Awards at the Hollywood Palladium on March 2, 2003 Kevin Winter/Getty Images

She was married a total of three times, first to Glenn Billingsley from 1941 to 1947, followed by Roy Kellino from 1953 until his death in 1956, and William Mortensen from 1959 until he passed in 1981. She was the mother of 2.

Barbara Billingsley died on October 16, 2010 at the age of 94, having passed as a result of polymyalgia rheumatica.

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