We are remiss in not doing this earlier, but (from the New York Times): "Barbara Billingsley, TV’s June Cleaver, Dies at 94"

Frankly, I can't say I'm a fan of Leave It to Beaver, which is why I didn't post earlier, preferring to leave it to someone who is. But certainly, I can respect that Barbara Billingsley was well regarded and was the soul of poise and charm.

And I can appreciate her willingness to tweak her image, with this bit from Airplane"Stewardess, I Speak Jive"

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I didn't initially write anything about Barbara Billingsley's passing because it is difficult to translate her rôle as "June Cleaver" to those with modern sensibilities. You really had to live through the days when the show originally aired to appreciate it, and her. Difficult, but not impossible to convey.

Situation comedies based on the traditional family from the 1950's and early '60's often take hits by modern essayists for presenting those families as too ideal. No serious marital discord, or substance abuse problems (by parent or child), or loss of job, or financial worries. The family was always firmly in the upper middle class, with well-educated parents. The children were generally well behaved, with only minor (by to-day's standards, in particular) transgressions that were always resolved by the end of the episode. Mom and Dad provided perfect rôle models for their children and parental discipline was rarely more serious than grounding, and certainly never corporal punishment. Children were respectful to adults and generally obedient.

Many are critical of this, on the basis that such programmes ignored the real problems of life and marriage and child-rearing. Billy Gray, who played "Bud Anderson" on Father Knows Best has been especially critical of his own show and those like them. With all due respect, they miss the point. The intention of shows like FKB and Leave It to Beaver wasn't to depict life as it really was, but life as it could be. The lessons depicted in those half-hours could be applied to any family, rich or poor, traditional or non-traditional.

They also provided an escape. No-one wanted to watch a family that reminded one of his own serious problems. It was a pleasure to get away to a more ideal world where problems were familiar, but minor, and could be resolved in thirty minutes, with renewed faith and affection all around.

Perhaps no aspect of those bygone sitcoms receives more criticism than their handling of the wife and mother. Feminists often savage them for their depiction of the rôle of women. Certainly, not every facet of the way females were presented then can be defended by modern standards, but I would also argue that those attacking feminists had never taken the time to actually watch the shows they criticise---or at least, not more than an episode or two.

And that brings us to June Cleaver and Barbara Billingsley.

Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, the creators of LITB, often described the show as being from a child's point of view. That's accurate. But in order to reflect that, it had to contradistinguish it with the perspective of an adult. What I'm getting at is, the focus of the show wasn't Wally and the Beaver. It was actually a triumvriate: Wally and the Beaver, and their father, Ward.

The kids played off of their father much more than they did their mother. There was some logic to this. The knowledge that germanated from the constrast of perspectives was logically more effective with Ward---who had once been a boy himself. Sometimes he had to be pushed to remember, sometimes not, but Ward could recall the quandries and mysteries confronting a young boy. Obviously, June could not. As much as society has tried to equalise the status of boys and girls, it still remains a fact that the experiences of growing up are different for boys than for girls.

Ward Cleaver was also the head of the household, both de jure and de facto. More so than probably in any other traditional-family sitcom. This fact, and the necessity that the Wally-Beaver-Ward relationship was central to the show, tended to push June Cleaver into the background. Very easily, June Cleaver could have been reduced to a fringe character, much like Trixie Norton on The Honeymooners---had it not been for the presence and acting ability Barbara Billingsley brought to the part.

June was never as independent as Margaret Anderson, nor as strong-willed as Donna Stone, but her presence, though lesser, was integral to the show. LITB never would have worked as well had it been a single-father household, such as My Three Sons. June Cleaver was a thoughtful, caring mother. Yes, she occasionally overworried about her sons, but never to the point where she was indulgent or overly solicitous. It was her presence that gave Wally and the Beaver the sense that home was a safe haven, and many of the good traits that the boys exhibited, especially Wally, were vested in them by June.

And very often, June was the liaison between the boys and their father, sympathising with her sons' worries about whatever they had done wrong (though not necessarily approving of it) and relaying it to an often perturbed Ward. Frequently, it was June acting as ambassador that led Ward to remembering his own boyhood feelings and fears.

It could have been a very bland rôle, and in the hands of another, lesser-skilled actress, it probably would have been. But Barbara Billingsley was able to epitomise motherly warmth and concern and her affection for her husband with a minimum of gestures and tone. Though called upon less often in the scripts to be the "advice-giver", when she was, the chemistry between her and the boys was every bit as strong as with Ward.

Additionally, there is something I didn't appreciate about the show as a boy, but now, when I see it as an adult, I find to be one of its most enjoyable aspects. Because the show was written to be from a child's perspective, there were only occasional scenes showing Ward and June interacting privately, and most of these are true gems. They truly convey the feeling that Ward and June love and respect each other. Not so much with strident displays of affection, but with the small private things and comments that couples in love for a long time exchange.

Perhaps it is because I have been blessed with a strong marriage that I find some of Ward and June's private moments so endearing. It radiates in some of their conversations:

On a rare opportunity to have an evening to themselves, Ward and June go out for a night on the town. In the driveway, Ward opens the car door for his wife.

"Thank you, dear," says June. "It's so sweet of you to be the thoughtful husband after all these years."

"You're very welcome," replies Ward. Then he casts quick glances to the surrounding houses. "Besides, the neighbours might be watching."

(The Good Mrs. Benson watched that scene with me several years ago, and it's had long-standing repercussions. Whenever I open the car door for her now, she says "Oh, the neighbours must be watching.")

On another occasion, Ward and June are discussing the Beaver's friend, Gilbert.

"Ah, June," says Ward, "Gilbert's always talking about his parents. Have you ever met them?"

"Oh, I see her at the supermarket every once in a while," June tells him. "She seems like a calm, sensible person."

"You can't really go by that. You might look the same way to her."


These two examples were the only ones I could find to quote, and they give Ward the punchline. But there were times when June got her rimshot in, too. And because of the acting skill of both Miss Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont, they came across just as they were intended---playful little jibes illustrating two people who have been in love for a long time and still are.

When I first read of Miss Billingsley's passing a couple of days ago, a thought occurred to me, one that has occurred to me before. Outside of her memorable scene in Airport, Barbara Billingsley never acted in any other part of real significance. I suppose one could attribute that to typecasting, and of course, I never knew how Miss Billingsley felt about how being June Cleaver affected the rest of her career.

But however and whatever it did, playing June Cleaver made Barbara Billingsley an icon of Americana, a beloved part of the cultural memory of millions of people in America and around the world. It's almost impossible to grasp living with that kind of status.

But I have no doubt that Barbara Billingsley did so with impeccable grace and charm.
Outstanding essay, Commander. I agree that Leave It to Beaver receives unfair criticism from people. Although the lifestyle of the Cleaver family was idealized, the characters themselves were pretty close to reality in their relationships and their dialogue as your examples attest. I grew up in a working class family but I still could identify with many of Beaver's misadventures. My dad worked in a railroad yard, not an office, but he shared many of the traits of Ward. And my mother never wore pearls or heels around the house but she was always there ready to offer a bit of comfort after a tough day at school. It's unfortunate that our society has become so cynical that the portrayal of a solid, respectable family on TV is a point of ridicule.
Nice write up Commander. Much to my brothers chagrin I watched a lot of Leave it to Beaver re-runs while growing up, and watched them again during my first year in college. Now I haven't seen any of them in about 20 years, but they I still have fond memories.
Thank you for those gracious words, gentlemen.

Doc, you said it much better than I did when you wrote " It's unfortunate that our society has become so cynical that the portrayal of a solid, respectable family on TV is a point of ridicule."

Leave It to Beaver just missed being in my first tier of favourite sitcoms. But it was solidly near the top. Connelly, Mosher, and their writers were able to mine a great deal of gentle humour and sentimentality out of simple premises. The first-season episode "Tenting Tonight" is a prime example. The plot barely takes a sentence to write: when a last-minute work assignment forces Ward to cancel a camping trip with his sons, they decide to pitch a tent in the backyard and rough it themselves. That's it. No twists, no up-ending. But, by relying on the elements of the show discussed above, it is one of the more entertaining half-hours of the show.

It has more of the private Ward-and-June moments than most episodes, including, for me, the best one of the series (which is a bit long to relate here).

In the final act, a rainstorm hits while the boys are trying to sleep in their tent. In the house, June frets over their well-being. Ward is reluctant to admit it, but he is worried, too. But he realises how important it is to Wally and the Beaver that they not be treated like little boys.

Outside, Wally and the Beav aren't too happy over the rainwater rushing into the tent, but neither one is willing to go inside, lest their parents think they are "sissies".

The next morning is clear and sunshiny, and June is relieved to see, from the kitchen window, that the boys are safe outside, cooking their breakfast. She mentions to Ward that the roof needs to be checked, because she saw some wet spots on the carpet after the rain. Ward tells her that it was Wally and the Beaver who made the wet spots on the carpet when they came inside out of the rain about mid-night last night. Then, at five in the morning, after the rain had passed, they went back outside.

Ward talks about going through something similar when he was a boy, and when June asks how the boys got into the house, he tells her that he "might have 'accidentally' left the back door unlocked."

But Connelly and Mosher haven't filled their sentiment quotient, yet. The epilogue shows the boys getting ready for Sunday school. Eddie Haskell has dropped by and is astounded that Wally and the Beaver were allowed to camp outside in the rain.

"Boy, my pop wouldn't'a let me sleep out in the rain," says Eddie. "He'd'a come out and dragged me into the house and made me take a hot bath! Didn't your pop make you come in at all?"

"Heck, no!" Wally and the Beaver insist.

"Boy," replies Eddie, "I wish I had a father who never cared what I did."

After Eddie leaves, the Beav asks his older brother:

"Wally, Dad does too care what we do, doesn't he?"

Wally glances around to make sure Eddie is gone, then he replies:

"Sure, he does, Beav. Who do you think left the door unlocked last night?"

Cut to the credits.


The culmination of the series' reflexion of the love and strength in family came in the last episode of the second season, titled "The Most Interesting Character".

The pupils in the Beaver's class are assigned to write, over the week-end, a composition on the most interesting character they know. The Beav learns that most of his classmates are going to write about their fathers, and they tell him how their fathers were explorers or war heroes and have stacks of trophies and medals. (All obviously inflated, but the Beaver---never the brightest bulb in the chandelier---believes them.)

The Beaver decides to write about his father, too. But everything he finds out about Ward is mundane and unexciting. By Sunday night, he is stumped about what to write. He considers inflating his father's achievements to make him sound as impressive as the other kids' dads. This leads to one of the infrequent times in the series when the Beaver goes to June for advice. Instead of writing about what your father does, suggests June, why don't you write about what your father means to you?

This leads to the final scene, the next morning at breakfast, when Ward asks to read the Beaver's composition. The boy is reluctant but hands it over to his dad. I have this scene on tape and I have seen it so many times, I can quote the Beaver's compostion by heart.

The most interesting character I have ever known is my father, Mister Ward Cleaver----

"Mister?"

"That counts as a word, Dad."

He does not have an interesting job. He just works hard and takes care of all of us.

He never shot things in Africa or not saved anybody that was drowning. But that's alright with me because when I am sick, he brings me ice cream, and when I tell him things or ask things, he always listens to me. And he will use up a whole Saturday to make junk with me in the garage.

He may not be interesting to you, or someone else, because he's not your father . . .


(In a wonderful acting gesture, at this moment, Hugh Beaumont shifts his eyes from the paper to stare at the tabletop, digesting the heartfelt words a son wrote of his father.)

. . . just mine.


This scene was so effective that, in the 1983 reunion movie Still the Beaver, there is a sequence in which the now-grown Beaver returns to his family home and recalls, through flashbacks, several of his childhood heart-to-heart talks with Ward (Hugh Beaumont having passed away the previous year). The Beaver's reminiscences conclude with a voice-over of Beaumont reading the composition against the scene of Ward's funeral. It was the most moving moment in an otherwise, unfortunately, lacklustre film.
See, now that's why I thought this thread was better left to more capable hands than myself!
ClarkKent_DC said:
See, now that's why I thought this thread was better left to more capable hands than myself!

If I had adhered to my first instinct, CK, yours might have been the only comment on the thread. I hadn't intended to write anything about Barbara Billingsley or Leave It to Beaver.

You see, it's something of a challenge to describe why June Cleaver was so important to the show, or why Barbara Billingsley was so effective playing her. Because nothing about the rôle or the actress leaps out and grabs you.

Now, I can write pages about Margaret Anderson. And I can even provide a decent essay on Donna Stone. (Though, truth to tell, The Donna Reed Show, while a watchable production, never quite broke through in either the cleverness of writing or on the sentimentality meter, as several other situation comedies of that era.) But June Cleaver's traits were never that articulatable.

Add to that the fact that the core of LITB was the relationship between Wally and the Beaver and their father. Not only did it provide the contradistinction between a child's perspective and an adult's, but that gap was bridged by Ward's memories of what it was like to be a small boy. This left June as the odd woman out.

Despite the title "Father Knows Best", Margaret Anderson was every bit Jim's equal---both as perceived by the audience and within the fictional conceit of the show. And Donna Stone was the star of her show. The closest thematic counterpart of June Cleaver was Kathy, Danny Williams' second wife on Make Room for Daddy. And that was a step-down from Danny's first wife, Margaret. Margaret Williams was written to be on the same level as Danny, an equal match in the battle of wisecracks and comeuppances. But when Kathy came along, she served as little more than a plot device, someone for Danny to rail at, or to be the sounding board for his diatribes, or to put up arguments that never won out over her husband's tendency to deal with situations by charging in head-first (or, given it was Danny Thomas, perhaps I should say "nose-first").

June Cleaver could have wound up the same way. But she didn't. Though not part of the core relationship emphasised by the plots, her influence was critical to the show. It was from June that Wally and the Beaver got their sense of courtesy and politeness. It was June who was better able to read the boys' emotions and to whom they were more willing to show them. And it was June who was able to translate them into an adult perspective for Ward. The three males in the house understood this and valued her for it.

In one of the earliest episodes, June is gone for most of the half hour. She is out of town, caring for a sick relative. Meanwhile, her Aunt Martha takes her place in the Cleaver household, to look after Ward and the boys. Aunt Martha is well meaning, kind, and loving, but very old fashioned. Ward and the boys do their best to conform to her turn-of-the-century expectations, but the worst of it comes when she insists that the Beaver wear a suit of cap, black coat, short pants, and knee socks to school. Naturally, he is teased mercilessly by the other kids at school.

Ward doesn't learn about the situation until Wally confides it to him later that evening. Ward isn't so old that he has forgotten the embarassment that something like that would create for a small boy. He assures the Beaver that he will deal with Aunt Martha.

Ward sits down to tell the loving-but-oblivious Martha that her ministrations are causing the Beaver no end of embarrassment and teasing. But because Ward is trying to be gentle about it, she just isn't grasping the situation. Ward is about to be blunt about the whole thing when June calls.

When June asks how things are going with Aunt Martha, she explains that Martha was like a mother to her when she was a little girl and how deeply the old woman loves her and Ward and the boys.

It's a brief scene, and admittedly, yes, it's a plot device to set up the final act. But, under Barbara Billingsley's handling of the lines, it doesn't come across as either perfunctory or maudlin. And that's probably what best defines her portrayal of June Cleaver---her absolute sincerity in the rôle. Because of that, June Cleaver is neither a caricature or a stereotype; it is difficult not to believe that she is actually the mother of Wally and the Beaver and the wife of Ward.

And this is the most telling thing about June's influence within the fictional composition of the show: while her love for Aunt Martha is patently obvious, her words don't give Ward a new insight on the old gal. It's not an "awwwwwwwww . . . " moment. While fond of Aunt Martha, Ward finds her trying, and still does. Yet, after hanging up from talking to June, he drops the whole matter of telling Martha not to interfere. Not because of any newfound appreciation of Martha---but because Ward values and loves his wife that he will follow her wishes.

By extension, we now realise that this, also, is why Wally and the Beaver have endured Aunt Martha's old-fashioned insistences without complaint or revolt. Not because it is important to Aunt Martha that they do, but because they know it is important to their mother that they do. This illustrates the influence that June had on her family and the character's importance to the show.

Incidentally, how Ward handles the Beaver's "short pants" crisis leads to the first real "lump in the throat" moment in the series.
Commander Benson said:
ClarkKent_DC said:
See, now that's why I thought this thread was better left to more capable hands than myself!

If I had adhered to my first instinct, CK, yours might have been the only comment on the thread. I hadn't intended to write anything about Barbara Billingsley or Leave It to Beaver.


Well, when these kinds of things happen, we tend to take note of them in our little corner of cyberspace. Sometimes I jump up and post; sometimes, someone else beats me to it; sometimes, I think somebody else surely will, and am surprised that it doesn't happen (nobody commented on the final installment of Cathy?); and sometimes, I think somebody should say something but I either don't have much to say or don't think I'm the right one to comment.

The latter was the case this time. I have no fond memories of Leave It to Beaver. It is not an object of ridicule for me; rather, it simply holds no appeal. It's like Jack Kirby's art; I can respect the accomplishment, talent, and professionalism that goes into it, and but I just don't like it. I can appreciate that other people do. but that's as close as I can come to appreciating it myself.

That said, even though there's the myth that these things come in threes (Steven Cannell, Barbara Billingsley and Tom Bosley, within days of each other?), I also felt that Ms. Billingsley deserved her own mention in our corner of cyberspace for her own life and career.


Commander Benson said:

When I first read of Miss Billingsley's passing a couple of days ago, a thought occurred to me, one that has occurred to me before. Outside of her memorable scene in Airport, Barbara Billingsley never acted in any other part of real significance. I suppose one could attribute that to typecasting, and of course, I never knew how Miss Billingsley felt about how being June Cleaver affected the rest of her career.

But however and whatever it did, playing June Cleaver made Barbara Billingsley an icon of Americana, a beloved part of the cultural memory of millions of people in America and around the world. It's almost impossible to grasp living with that kind of status.

But I have no doubt that Barbara Billingsley did so with impeccable grace and charm.

A while back, NBC had an anthology show called Amazing Stories, a sort of Twilight Zone lite produced by Steven Spielberg. One episode dealt with a poor schlub burdened with a demanding job, a nagging spouse, a bratty son and another son he didn't understand. His only solace was watching TV each night ... and then his wife sold the TV set to buy an outfit. He replaced it with a set with a magic remote control; with a push of a button, his wife was replaced by a beauty pageant contestant, and then by June Cleaver -- played, of course, by Barbara Billingsley. He swapped out one son for Diff'rent Strokes's Arnold Jackson (played by Gary Coleman) and the other for The A-Team's The Face, but -- as one might expect to happen in this kind of tale -- things go haywire and the house becomes full of these TV characters (Richard Simmons!) and he can't get rid of them ...

In any event, here is Barbara Billingsley, being that beloved part of the cultural memory of millions of people in America and around the world. Her presence there made the story work in a way that could not have been conveyed by someone else.

I recall an interview with Ernest Thomas, who hit it big as Raj on What's Happening!, who spoke about being typecast, and he said Muhammad Ali told him to embrace it, because many, many people never have that kind of success. I trust Barbara Billingsley also learned and accepted that lesson.
I just wanted to post a brief thank you to Commander Benson for the thought he put into this discussion. Thank you. (See what you've done? Now you've got me in the mood to buy LitB on DVD!)

Aside to CK: your posting philosophy is exactly the same as mine!

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