1. Headline
  1. Headline

Video: ‘Beaver’ remembers TV mom Billingsley

  1. Transcript of: ‘Beaver’ remembers TV mom Billingsley

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Barbara Billingsley , best known for her legendary role as June Cleaver on the classic show " Leave It to Beaver ," died on Saturday at the age of 94. We're going to talk to Jerry Mathers , who played the Beaver , in a moment. But first, here's NBC 's Peter Alexander .

    PETER ALEXANDER reporting: She was everything Americans dreamed a mom could be. As June Cleaver , the kind and caring stay-at-home mom to a pair of precocious boys on " Leave It to Beaver ," Barbara Billingsley was a perfect fit. Her own two sons said she was pretty much the image of Mrs. Cleaver in real life . Fifty-three years have passed since Billingsley first took on that iconic role as TV 's favorite mom, but in decades of reruns Mrs. Cleaver has remained a household name. While she memorably wore pearls and high heels at home, few knew those heels were actually an attempt to stay taller than her growing on-air sons. But it was her patient and nurturing way that captured audiences and came to embody the female ideals of an era.

    ALEXANDER: After " Leave It to Beaver ," Billingsley resurfaced in 1980 in an unforgettable cameo speaking jive in the comedic film "Airplane."

    Ms. BARBARA BILLINGSLEY: I had done some work since " Beaver ," but it had been a long time. So it was fun -- it was fun to do that.

    ALEXANDER: Billingsley and the " Leave It to Beaver " cast reunited numerous times over the years. While Billingsley admitted her association with June Cleaver made it hard for her to do other things, she once said, "As far as I'm concerned, it's been an honor." Barbara Billingsley was 94. For TODAY, Peter Alexander , NBC News, New York.

    LAUER: Jerry Mathers played the Beaver on " Leave It to Beaver " and maintained a lifelong friendship with Barbara Billingsley . Hi , Jerry , it's good to see you.

    Mr. JERRY MATHERS ("Leave It to Beaver"): It's nice to be here. It's not the best of circumstances...

    LAUER: Yeah.

    Mr. MATHERS: ...but it's certainly a pleasure because she was a wonderful woman, and I want everyone to know that she was very much like June Cleaver . She was a wonderful person , and I'm just blessed to have even known her.

    LAUER: Yeah. Our condolences to you and all of her friends and family members. You know, we're thinking that she played your mom on TV during those years, but in some ways she was kind of America 's mom, wasn't she?

    Mr. MATHERS: She was, and she was a wonderful mentor to me. I knew I had a real mom but, you know, I always knew that Barbara was there for me. She was just like that, she was like that with everyone. She was the most kind and giving person . She was a philanthropist. She supported many, many charities. And I did some charity work with her, but she was always out there helping other people.

    ANN CURRY, co-host: Do you have a favorite memory, Jerry ? This is Ann Curry asking.

    Mr. MATHERS: Well, I've said that Barbara , in some ways, not -- taught me manners. And one of the things that she did one time that I still remember is I was a very rambunctious child, I had a lot of energy, and one time we were going to a door and I was all excited, I think it was some sort of a press thing. And I was going to walk out the door in front of her and I kind of rushed in front of her, and she grabbed me by those little hairs in the back of your neck right there and gave me a gentle pull and pulled me back. And then she told me with a big smile, ' Jerry , ladies always go first.' But she was just like that. She was so kind and, as I say, she was such a help to me all my life. I knew that had I ever had a problem that she could help me with, she would be there. And she would do that for anyone.

    CURRY: Hm.

    Mr. MATHERS: She was just the nicest person you could ever meet; not June Cleaver , but even nicer.

    CURRY: Hm.

    AL ROKER reporting: Jerry , Al Roker here. What's her legacy going to be, do you think?

    Mr. MATHERS: You know, " Leave It to Beaver " is the longest running show in television history. It's been on the air now for 53 years. I think people will know that -- when it was going on, cowboys and Indians and gangster movies were the only things that the world saw. And " Leave It to Beaver " and a few of the other shows that were situation comedies suddenly came out.

    LAUER: Right.

    Mr. MATHERS: And I think Barbara set an image. Now, people always say, 'Well, no one can live like that.' No one could except Barbara .

    LAUER: Wow.

    Mr. MATHERS: I mean, Barbara had a wonderful life and she was just so nice. And she really was, in many ways, like June Cleaver . And not that the character was based on her, but -- or that she tried to follow it.

    LAUER: Right.

    Mr. MATHERS: That was the real Barbara Billingsley .

    LAUER: Jerry , you're so nice to get up early and remember her for us.

    Mr. MATHERS: And I hope that's her legacy.

    LAUER: It will be. Thank you so much .

Image: Barbara Billingsley
Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images
Barbara Billingsley, best known as mom June Cleaver on TV's "Leave it to Beaver," has died at age 94.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/18/2010 9:28:55 AM ET 2010-10-18T13:28:55

Barbara Billingsley, who gained supermom status for her gentle portrayal of June Cleaver, the warm, supportive mother of a pair of precocious boys in "Leave It to Beaver," died Saturday. She was 94.

Billingsley, who had suffered from a rheumatoid disease, died at her home in Santa Monica, said family spokeswoman Judy Twersky.

When the show debuted in 1957, Jerry Mathers, who played Beaver, was 9, and Tony Dow, who portrayed Wally, was 12. Billingsley's character, the perfect stay-at-home 1950s mom, was always there to gently but firmly nurture both through the ups and downs of childhood.

Beaver, meanwhile, was a typical American boy whose adventures landed him in one comical crisis after another.

  1. More Entertainment stories
    1. Autistic ballerina dances her way into hearts

      In a popular YouTube video, the beaming little ballerina dances an entire four-minute routine seemingly perfectly, matchin...

    2. Every on-screen drink in 'Mad Men' in 5 minutes
    3. See the 'Dancing' stars' most memorable moves
    4. Emmy's biggest snubs? Cranston, Hamm, more
    5. 'Toy Story' toys burn up in prank on mom

Billingsley's own two sons said she was pretty much the image of June Cleaver in real life, although the actress disagreed.

"She was every bit as nurturing, classy, and lovely as 'June Cleaver' and we were so proud to share her with the world," her son Glenn Billingsley said Saturday.

She did acknowledge that she may have become more like June as the series progressed.

"I think what happens is that the writers start writing about you as well as the character they created," she once said. "So you become sort of all mixed up, I think."

"Barbara was a patient advisor and teacher. She helped me along this challenging journey through life by showing me the importance of manners and respect for others," Mathers, 62, said in a statement reported by People magazine. "She will be missed by all of her family, friends, fans and, most especially, by me."

"She was as happy as a lark being recognized as America's mom," Dow, 65, told CNN. "She had a terrific life and had a wonderful impact on everybody she knew, and even people she didn't know."

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.

  1. More Entertainment stories
    1. Autistic ballerina dances her way into hearts

      In a popular YouTube video, the beaming little ballerina dances an entire four-minute routine seemingly perfectly, matchin...

    2. Every on-screen drink in 'Mad Men' in 5 minutes
    3. See the 'Dancing' stars' most memorable moves
    4. Emmy's biggest snubs? Cranston, Hamm, more
    5. 'Toy Story' toys burn up in prank on mom

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," a show that she almost passed on.

"I was going to do another series with Buddy Ebsen for the same producers, but somehow it didn't materialize," she told The Associated Press in 1994. "A couple of months later I got a call to go to the studio to do this pilot show. And it was 'Beaver.'"

Decades later, she expressed surprise at the lasting affection people had for the show.

"We knew we were making a good show, because it was so well written," she said. "But we had no idea what was ahead. People still talk about it and write letters, telling how much they watch it today with their children and grandchildren."

After "Leave it to Beaver" left the air in 1963 Billingsley largely disappeared from public view for several years.

She resurfaced in 1980 in a hilarious cameo in "Airplane!" playing a demure elderly passenger not unlike June Cleaver.

When flight attendants were unable to communicate with a pair of jive-talking hipsters, Billingsley's character volunteered to translate, saying "I speak jive." The three then engage in a raucous street-slang conversation.

"No chance they would have cast me for that if I hadn't been June Cleaver," she once said.

She returned as June Cleaver in a 1983 TV movie, "Still the Beaver," that costarred Mathers and Dow and portrayed a much darker side of Beaver's life.

In his mid-30s, Beaver was unemployed, unable to communicate with his own sons and going through a divorce. Wally, a successful lawyer, was handling the divorce, and June was at a loss to help her son through the transition.

"Ward, what would you do?" she asked at the site of her husband's grave. (Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver, had died in 1982.)

The movie revived interest in the Cleaver family, and the Disney Channel launched "The New Leave It to Beaver" in 1985.

The series took a more hopeful view of the Cleavers, with Beaver winning custody of his two sons and all three moving in with June.

In 1997 Universal made a "Leave it to Beaver" theatrical film with a new generation of actors. Billingsley returned for a cameo, however, as Aunt Martha.

In later years she appeared from time to time in such TV series as "Murphy Brown," "Empty Nest" and "Baby Boom" and had a memorable comic turn opposite fellow TV moms June Lockhart of "Lassie" and Isabel Sanford of "The Jeffersons" on the "Roseanne" show.

"Now some people, they just associate you with that one role (June Cleaver), and it makes it hard to do other things," she once said. "But as far as I'm concerned, it's been an honor."

In real life, fate was not as gentle to Billingsley as it had been to June and her family.

Born Barbara Lillian Combes in Los Angeles on Dec. 22, 1915, she was raised by her mother after her parents divorced. She and her first husband, Glenn Billingsley, divorced when her sons were just 2 and 4.

Her second husband, director Roy Kellino, died of a heart attack after three years of marriage and just months before she landed the "Leave it to Beaver" role.

She married physician Bill Mortenson in 1959 and they remained wed until his death in 1981.

Survivors include her sons, a stepson and numerous grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Barbara Billingsley: 1915-2010

loading photos...
  1. Barbara Billingsley is pictured with her "Leave it to Beaver" costars Hugh Beaumont, left, Tony Dow, and Jerry Mathers. (Courtesy: Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Barbara Billingsley appears in The Argyle Secrets in 1948. (Courtesy: Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Barbara Billingsley, left, appears with Lana Turner, Marietta Canty, and Kirk Douglas, in the 1952 film "The Bad and the Beautiful." Although Billingsley had numerous roles in movies in the 40s and 50s, she did not achieve star status until "Leave it to Beaver." (Aquarius / AQUARIUS COLLECTION) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. MCA President Sidney Sheinberg, left, Ted Turner, Jerry Mathers, Tony Dow, and Barbara Billingsley, celebrate the debut of the "New Leave it to Beaver" on WTBS, on April 25, 1986. (MCA / Courtesy: Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Barbara Billingsley, Park Overall, and Richard Mulligan, star in the episode 'My Nurse Is Back and There's Gonna Be Trouble...' in the series "Empty Nest" that ran from 1988 to 1995. (Touchstone Television / Courtesy: Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Jennie Garth and Barbara Billingsley star in "Secret Santa" in 2003. (NBC / Courtesy: Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Actress Barbara Billingsley arrives at the 50th Annual Creative Arts Emmy Awards at the Pasadena Civic Center Aug. 29, 1998, in Pasadena, Calif. Barbara Billingsley, best known for her role as June Cleaver in the television comedy series "Leave It to Beaver" has died, aged 94, at her home in Santa Monica. (Barry King / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. Courtesy of Hockley family

    Sandy Hook mom: Shootings changed how we feel about going back to school

    8/29/2014 1:02:40 PM +00:00 2014-08-29T13:02:40
  1. Courtesy Andreas Kleinke

    'Brand new mini': Former Apple employee's baby announcement is charming

    8/29/2014 4:28:59 PM +00:00 2014-08-29T16:28:59
  1. Ben Garvin via Instagram

    Bill Murray sighting actually makes perfect sense for once

    8/29/2014 7:18:44 PM +00:00 2014-08-29T19:18:44
  1. Ariana Grande brings her ‘Everything,' huge crowd to TODAY plaza

    When you’ve got pop’s reigning princess making a royal visit to your show, what do you do? In the case of TODAY Friday, you just hand over the keys to the kingdom.

    8/29/2014 12:46:14 PM +00:00 2014-08-29T12:46:14
  2. video Pop star performs her No. 1 hit, ‘Problem’

    video The singer performs her hit tune on the TODAY plaza. Her second album, “My Everything,” is already No. 1 on iTunes in 80 countries.

    8/29/2014 6:49:03 PM +00:00 2014-08-29T18:49:03
  3. Ariana Grande on how she played off her most embarrassing on-stage moment

    Reigning princess of pop Ariana Grande exudes confidence on stage these days, but she says that wasn't always the case. Watch the video to find out how Grande played off a rocky moment during a performance.

    8/29/2014 4:35:57 PM +00:00 2014-08-29T16:35:57
  4. Jamie Mccarthy / Getty Images