Let’s raise a glass of un-spiked eggnog to Barbara Billingsley who would have turned 103 on Saturday. The woman who gained international fame as June Cleaver was born Barbara Lillian Combes in Los Angeles. She attended Los Angeles Junior College in the 1930s before becoming a model. After two failed TV series, Barbara found pay dirt as the iconic 1950s mom in “Leave it to Beaver” (LTIB).

Mrs. Cleaver is often mocked for vacuuming in heels and pearls. The inside scoop is that she switched from flats to heels after the first season in order to stay taller than her growing sitcom sons. She wore the pearls in order to hide a surgical scar on her neck. (a cynic might observe that since the Cleaver boys wore ties to dinner, they too may have been hiding hideous scars). Barbara’s fans easily outnumber her critics and none other than Oprah Winfrey once named Barbara as her childhood television heroine. Although Barbara played the quintessential 1950s nuclear family mom, she was raised by a single mother. In the life mirrors art department, Barbara raised two real-life sons.

The Beaver
In 1950, two-year-old Jerry Mathers was spotted by a department store manager, who offered his family free clothes if the tike would model for their catalog. The toddler’s modeling career was followed by several films including a part in Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry”. Mathers won the title role in LTIB when he came to an audition in his Cub Scout uniform. The producers wanted a boy who preferred Cub Scouts to acting.

The LTIB cast worked constantly, filming 234 episodes in six years. By age 14, Mathers wanted a break while co-star Tony Dow (Wally) wanted to go to college.  After high school Mathers volunteered to serve in Vietnam. However, Bob Kalsu of the Buffalo Bills had recently died in combat and the Defense Department did not want the negative publicity of “The Beaver” becoming a casualty. He settled for an assignment in the Air Force Reserve. After attaining a philosophy degree from Berkeley, Mathers spent time in banking and real estate. The royalties from LTIB were extremely low particularly when compared to the royalties enjoyed later by players from Seinfeld and Cheers. Thus, the industrious Mathers kept working, even making his Broadway debut at age 59. (Wilbur Turnblad in “Hairspray”).

Whatever Happened?
Tony Dow was a Junior Olympian swimmer when he landed the role of Wally. After college, he become a director and a successful sculptor.

Frank Bank (Lumpy Rutherford) became an investment adviser who managed some of Mathers’ retirement accounts. In his autobiography, “Call Me Lumpy” the boorish Bank boasts about his prowess as an actor, businessman, and lover. The few consumers who purchased the book have deep regrets.

Contrary to urban myths, Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell) did not grow up to be Alice Cooper or porn star John Holmes. He became a Los Angeles police officer with assignments in narcotics and vice. Osmond was shot three times, went on disability, and eventually retired.

Rusty Stevens (Larry Mondello) was one of the only actors to be fired from the series. The mothers of the actors were always on the set to care for the children. Barbara Billingsley once observed: “We all loved Rusty so much. Unfortunately, they had to let him go because his mother was such a pain.”

Hugh Beaumont (Ward) was raised in a very religious Midwestern household. In 1940, the ordained minister and conscientious objector moved to Hollywood where he found success as a model and “B” crime film actor (most of the competition were serving in WW2).   After six years as Ward Cleaver, he retired from show business and became a Christmas Tree farmer in Minnesota. Beaumont died of a heart attack in 1982.

Hopefully the humorless Mr. Cleaver enjoyed his television wife’s return to the screen after a seventeen-year absence. Who can’t laugh at Billingsley’s send-up of June Cleaver in 1980’s “Airplane” as the housewife who speaks jive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzIcec_bQss

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. If you know the whereabouts of Miss Landers, please send me a note.

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