When Barbara Billingsley
died two years ago, most obituaries focused on her role as iconic TV mom June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver
. But Billingsley had a decade of work behind her before she started running the Cleaver household in 1957, and she would go on to have some memorable late career roles.
In this Sept. 22, 1986 file photo, actress Barbara Billingsley poses next to a portrait of her television family, Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers and herself as the Cleaver family from "Leave It To Beaver." Billingsley, who gained the title supermom for her gentle portrayal of June Cleaver, the warm, supportive mother of a pair of precocious boys in "Leave it to Beaver," has died Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010. She was 94. (AP Photo/Doug C. Pizac, File)
Here are 10 highlights from Billingsley’s non-Leave it to Beaver work.
1. Billingsley’s big break sort of wasn’t one. After a year of junior college in Los Angeles, a revue she was appearing in called Straw Hat garnered enough attention to earn a Broadway debut. Unfortunately, the production closed after only five days. Billingsley stayed in New York to work as a model.
2. MGM signed her to a contract in 1945, and the next several years would see her appearing in a host of uncredited roles playing parts like “Party Guest,” “Department Store Clerk” or “Blonde With Hives.” Her first credited role on the big screen was in director Cy Endfield’s The Argyle Secrets (1948).
3. In 1952, she did an uncredited turn in The Bad and The Beautiful, starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner. Though Billingsley’s role was minor, she could boast appearing opposite true Hollywood legends, and the film would go on to win five Academy Awards.
4. Billingsley also appeared in Three Guys Named Mike (1951), a film about flight attendants, opposite Jane Wyman.
5. Her biggest role on the big screen would come in The Careless Years (1957), co-starring Dean Stockwell and Natalie Trundy. The film was neither a critical nor commercial hit, and is remarkable mainly for being the directorial debut of Arthur Hiller, who would go on to make 33 major studio releases including Love Story (1970), Author! Author! (1982) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).
6. Though Leave it To Beaver ended in 1963, it appeared so frequently in syndication that Billingsley had difficulty escaping her image as the sweet 1950s matron. With trouble getting other roles, she took time out of her career to travel the world. Her second wind came when producers took comedic advantage of her wholesome persona to cast her as a jive talking passenger in the 1982 hit Airplane!.
7. After the success of Airplane!, she landed a number of comic roles on TV, including her 1982 appearance on Mork & Mindy. She would also appear on Roseanne in 1988, in 1991’s Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, and in My Name is Earl in 2007. Also notable was her participation in a Candid Camera sketch with fellow TV mom Isabel Sanford.
8. Billingsley had a small role in 1987’s Back to The Beach. In case you’re ever playing the Kevin Bacon game at home, Billingsley appeared in this film with David Bowe, who was in A Few Good Men (1992) with Kevin Bacon, giving Billingsley a Bacon number of 2.
9. Her longest recurring TV role outside of Beaver was as the voice of Nanny in Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies, where she contributed to 17 episodes from 1984-1991.
10. Her final appearance was in a 2009 episode of The Office.
Originally published October 2010