10.17.10

Farewell to Mrs. Cleaver

Barbara Billingsley, known as TV’s perfect mother on Leave It to Beaver, passed away Saturday at age 94. Jeff Bliss shares his memories of working with her—and her home-made cookies.

Barbara Billingsley, known as TV’s perfect mother on Leave It To Beaver, passed away Saturday at age 94. Jeff Bliss shares his memories of working with her—and her home-made cookies.

When Barbara Billingsley died Saturday at age 94, many of us Baby Boomers lost someone special—someone best known for portraying an idealized, 1950s version of the perfect housewife and mother.

The truth is, even if you didn’t buy into her Leave It to Beaver character, June Cleaver, Mrs. Billingsley was someone special.

I had the good fortune to work with Mrs. Billingsley a few years back. I won’t claim to have become friends with her, though the few times we subsequently bumped into each other, she was friendly. I am sure countless people in the entertainment industry have stories that are grander than mine and there are surely those, like her former co-stars, who worked with her for years.

My experience with Mrs. Billingsley came to be through the university I worked at where she was active in its committee for the arts. When the idea arose to do a video with her—an employee-appreciation presentation—that gently poked fun at the school by parodying Leave It to Beaver, I jumped at the opportunity.

After writing the script, I sent it to her and waited for a reaction. Mrs. Billingsley’s response: “Looks fun. Why don’t we just shoot this at my home?”

For someone who’d grown up watching re-runs of Leave It to Beaver and laughed out loud at her role as the old lady who speaks “ jive” in the hit spoof, Airplane!, it was like I’d been invited to visit a Hall of Famer in the dugout during a game. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.

On the day of the shoot, the crew and I arrived early—Mrs. Cleaver would have wanted us to be punctual! She came to the door and welcomed us inside as she had so many times before for Lumpy, Whitey, and even that boy Eddie Haskell.

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As the crew set up, I sat and talked with Mrs. Billingsley about the video. It wasn’t long, however, before we began discussing her career, family, and interests. I remember mentioning an interview with a well-known actress who complained about Hollywood not being more “mom-friendly.” Mrs. Billingsley brushed it aside and scoffed. “When I was working,” she said, “I was a widow and raising my children, by myself, at the same time I was working. I just got it done—that’s what people did then. You had to work hard and look after yourself. And that was back when people were not exactly behind things like companies paying for your childcare needs.”

Soon the shoot kicked into high gear. In every take, she nailed her lines. She always positioned herself and moved with pinpoint accuracy, and she gave us more than one great suggestion (born from her experiences) that made the process—and the finished product—better than we imagined it could be. As I watched this all unfold before me, I understood that the caring, helpful, teaching mother that was June Cleaver was very much a part of Barbara Billingsley.

Believe it or not, as the tape rolled and I sat there in her kitchen watching her work, I thought to myself, “Someday, I’m going to share this story with people about the time I worked with June Cleaver.” But I didn’t wait until her passing to tell my story. I’ve shared it with many people, and whenever I’ve told it, the other person’s face lit up. There was always a big smile, followed by something like, “How cool!” or, “Wow! Did Mrs. Cleaver bake her chocolate chip cookies for you?”

And to that I always answer yes.

Yes, I can say that I sat at the table in June Cleaver’s kitchen while she served the crew and me freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and milk. And right then, eating what were perhaps the best still-warm chocolate chip cookies ever, I was part of a moment where I felt like I had one foot in the real world, and one in the world of the Cleavers’ mythical All-American city of Mayfield.

As I write this, there is a feeling beyond what most celebrity deaths engender. That’s because Barbara Billingsley, in her role as June Cleaver, set the tone and expectations for a generation of television viewers. Her portrayal as the wife of Ward and the mother of Wally and Theodore—“The Beaver”—not only become a cultural touchstone, but she also served as a strong and lasting role model.

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Jeff Bliss is the Pacific Rim editor and co-host of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show.