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Barbara Billingsley,
TV’s June Cleaver,
Dies at 94

October 17, 2010

Barbara Billingsley, who as June Cleaver on the television series “Leave It to Beaver” personified a Hollywood postwar family ideal of the ever-sweet, ever-helpful suburban stay-at-home mom, died Saturday. She was 94.

A family spokeswoman, Judy Twersky, said that Ms. Billingsley had died of polymyalgia, a rheumatoid disease, at her home in Santa Monica, Calif.

From 1957 to 1963 and in decades of reruns, the glamorous June, who wore pearls and high heels at home, could be counted on to help her husband, Ward (Hugh Beaumont), get their son Theodore, better known as Beaver (Jerry Mathers), and his older brother, Wally (Tony Dow), out of countless minor jams, whether an alligator in the basement or a horse in the garage.

Baking a steady supply of cookies, she would use motherly intuition to sound the alarm about incipient trouble (“Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver”) in their immaculate, airy house in the fictional town of Mayfield. (The house appeared to have no master bedroom, just a big door from which Ward and June occasionally emerged, tying their bathrobes.)

Along with the mothers played by Harriet Nelson (“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”), Donna Reed (“The Donna Reed Show”) and others, Ms. Billingsley’s role became a cultural standard, one that may have been too good to be true but produced fan mail and nostalgia for decades afterward, from the same generation whose counterculture derided the see-no-evil suburbia June’s character represented.

Ms. Billingsley, who had nothing but respect for June Cleaver, was a former model and career actress who was married three times and spent part of her career as a working single mother (of two boys, at that).

Yes, she acknowledged 40 years later, her role was a picture-perfect reflection of the times. “We were the ideal parents because that’s the way he saw it,” she said, describing the show as the world seen through the eyes of a child. (The pearls, incidentally, covered up a hollow in her neck. In the beginning of the show, she wore flats; the heels were an attempt to stay taller than the growing boys.)

June was no pushover; she could be quite a disciplinarian, Ms. Billingsley said in 2000, during an interview for the Archive of American Television. “She was a loving, happy stay-at-home mom, which I think is great,” she said. Ms. Billingsley also said that women who stay at home to care for their children may find in it the best — and most important — job they’ll ever have.

Ms. Billingsley was born Barbara Lillian Combes on Dec. 22, 1915, in Los Angeles, where she attended George Washington High School. She left Los Angeles Junior College to appear in a short-lived Broadway play, “Straw Hat.” She took her stage name from her first husband, Glenn Billingsley, a nephew of Sherman Billingsley, the proprietor of the Stork Club in Manhattan. They had two sons.

After working as a fashion model, Ms. Billingsley returned to Los Angeles, acted in local plays and was signed to a contract by MGM. In the 1940s and early ’50s, her film roles were mostly small. Her movies included “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952) with Kirk Douglas, “Shadow on the Wall” (1950) with Ann Sothern and “Three Guys Named Mike” (1951) with Jane Wyman.

Of “Leave It to Beaver,” she later recalled, “It was a happy experience for me, and very timely,” adding that there was never a fight on the set in seven years. After the show ended its run in 1963, Ms. Billingsley, by then typecast, saw few acting roles. .

Her show business career was revived in 1980 by the movie comedy “Airplane!” in which she played a sweet passenger who communicates in “jive” with two streetwise black passengers — an ironic comment on her previous incarnation as America’s white-bread mom. After that there were guest appearances on “Mork & Mindy,” “Amazing Stories,” “The Love Boat,” “Murphy Brown,” “Roseanne” and other shows. From 1984 to 1991 Ms. Billingsley was the voice of the nanny in the animated series “Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies.”

In 1983 she reprised her role as June in a television movie, “Still the Beaver,” which reunited her with many members of the original “Leave It to Beaver” cast (but not Hugh Beaumont, who died in 1982). That led to a cable series known first by that name and then as “The New Leave It to Beaver.” She also had a small part in the 1997 feature-film version of “Leave It to Beaver.”

After her divorce from Glenn Billingsley in 1947, Ms. Billingsley married Roy Kellino. After Mr. Kellino’s death in 1956, she married Dr. William Mortenson, a general practitioner. They remained married until Dr. Mortenson died in 1981. “Our family after I married Dr. Bill turned out to be like” the Cleavers, she said in 2000.

She is survived by her two sons, Drew Billingsley of Granada Hills, Calif., and Glenn Billingsley Jr. of Phillips Ranch, Calif.

Many of Ms. Billingsley’s later guest appearances were either as June Cleaver or in roles that made wry references to her. But she said she turned down scripts if they made fun of June.

“She’s been too good to me to play anything like that,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 18, 2010, on page A32 of the New York edition.

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