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Image: Barbara Billingsley
Doug C. Pizac  /  AP file
53 years ago, Barbara Billingsley became Beaver Cleaver's mom. And at her death on Saturday at age 94, she remained so for millions of "Leave It to Beaver" fans, as well as remaining their own mom, too, in some TV-generated alternative universe.
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updated 10/19/2010 10:38:11 AM ET 2010-10-19T14:38:11
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They were the moms every kid of that generation longed for.

They were the fantasy moms of 1950s sitcoms. Margaret Anderson of "Father Knows Best" (played by Jane Wyatt). Donna Stone of "The Donna Reed Show." Harriet Nelson in the TV version of her real-life self on "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet."

But towering above them all was Barbara Billingsley. It was 53 years ago that she became Beaver Cleaver's mom. And at her death on Saturday at age 94, she remained so for millions of "Leave It to Beaver" fans, as well as remaining their own mom, too, in some TV-generated alternative universe.

Story: 'Leave it to Beaver' mom dies
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Nothing against real-life moms, of course. It's just that the sitcom moms that June Cleaver epitomized were a different breed. A dream. A standard of maternal excellence that (as any kid back then might have hoped at bad moments) real-life moms should take a few lessons from.

Why couldn't every mom be as pretty as June? Why couldn't every mom speak with that soothing voice?

Why couldn't real-life moms be as nicely turned out as June — always dressed for company, it seemed, even when she was tidying the house or in the kitchen baking a coconut cake? And how about that pearl necklace at her throat! She was the "It" Mom you'd be proud to show off when she dropped you at school every morning. Except in the bucolic town of Mayfield, Beaver (played by Jerry Mathers) and his big brother Wally (Tony Dow) could get themselves to school on foot.

As played by Billingsley, June Cleaver had endless patience. When Beaver was late to an all-important birthday party after falling in a street that was being repaved, June never raised her voice about his tarry mess and his tardiness.

Video: ‘Beaver’ remembers TV mom Billingsley (on this page)

And in an era when corporal punishment was still an approved parenting technique, June would never have raised her hand to her boys.

The closest she came to upbraiding her kids was her trademark expression of concern directed not at them, but to their father: "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver."

Then it was up to Ward, played by Hugh Beaumont, to have a little man-to-man talk with Beaver. And he did, without fireworks.

As any kid viewer could tell, Ward was upright, sensible, if somewhat starchy. As a professional accountant, he was all about maintaining order. He seemed to be the ideal for middle-class manhood in 1950s America. Fortunately, no little boy watching "Leave It to Beaver" let that give them the willies.

Meanwhile, they knew it was June who was empathetic, fun and baked cakes — and who advocated for her boys to her Ward boss.

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In one episode, little Beaver wants to spend $12.95 of the savings in his bank account to buy a really swell sweater.

Ward predictably replies, "I don't think we should lay out 13 dollars just on a whim."

But after the boys have left the dinner table, June mounts an appeal: "I think we should let him have that sweater," she says gently.

"Ohhh, noww, Juuuuuune," Ward protests.

Beaver gets their OK to buy the sweater, which is not only hideous but (to Beaver's mortification) turns out to be a girl's sweater.

Slideshow: Barbara Billingsley: 1915-2010 (on this page)

By the end of the episode, Beaver's mom puts everything right.

The original "Leave It to Beaver" series premiered in October 1957 and aired through September 1963. A curious thing: This glowing, picket-fenced vision of Americana ended two months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

An age of disillusionment had begun. And in TV sitcoms, the perfect nuclear family with the perfect stay-at-home mom was an endangered species.

In its place, "All in the Family" with addled doormat Edith Bunker came along. And raucous Roseanne Conner on "Roseanne." And raunchy Peg Bundy on "Married ... with Children." These were moms tailor-made for a different world of viewers. It was a different world of parents who weren't seeking escape by watching TV parents who were better than they could ever hope to be. They were seeking jagged reassurance from parents as hung up, or more so, than they had ever feared they could ever become.

Such a product of its times, "Leave It to Beaver" should have disappeared along with fallout shelters, bobbysoxers and full-service stations where gas was two-bits a gallon.

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That's what's happened to Donna Stone, Harriet Nelson and Margaret Anderson, all of whom, with the late actresses who played them, have receded into TV history.

All the more impressive that "Leave It to Beaver" has endured as a cultural touchstone, a 20th-century reference point, nostalgic fluff that still feels stirringly honest.

Much of that is attributable to June.

Now the passing of Barbara Billingsley represents a death in every TV viewer's family. A half-century later, June Cleaver, as Billingsley portrayed her, remains a TV mom against which real-life moms are still measured.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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 .

Photos: Barbara Billingsley: 1915-2010

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  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
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