Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Barbara Billingsley

Barbara Billingsley, best known as Cleaver-family matriarch June in Leave It to Beaver, died Oct. 16 at age 94. With June Cleaver, Billingsley created one of that handful of TV characters whom we've come to know not just as people but also as symbols of the ideas and social threads of an entire generation: in her case, the notions of motherhood and the role of women in postwar America.

Billingsley's own family experiences differed from June's, at least early on: a child of divorced parents, she and her first husband also split after having two sons together. A California native, she worked as a model and then an actress in small movie roles before appearing in Leave It to Beaver from 1957 to 1963. In later years, Billingsley would voice Nanny on the animated series Muppet Babies and play off her straitlaced image in a scene in 1980's Airplane! ("Oh, stewardess! I speak jive.")

"June Cleaver" became shorthand for the idea of the impossibly perfect suburban housewife, and insofar as Billingsley carried out the role impeccably in pearls and heels, unflappable and perfectly coiffed, that was the unattainable ideal the series conveyed. But it's also worth remembering that for all its focus on the kids, Leave It to Beaver was often a show about the adult business of parenting, and Billingsley always portrayed June as a sharp and capable grownup.

James Poniewozik

This text originally appeared in the Nov. 1, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine.