When Barbara Billingsley died, most obituaries focused on her role as iconic TV mom June Cleaver on “Leave It to Beaver.” But Billingsley had a decade of acting behind her before she started running the Cleaver household in 1957, and she would go on to have some memorable late career roles.
Here are 10 highlights from Billingsley’s non-Cleaver 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 between 1984 and 1991.
10. Her final appearance was in a 2009 episode of “The Office.”