R.I.P. Barbara Billingsley, Sit-Com Mom Emeritus

I don’t know about calling her “America’s mom”, as I’m sure many obituaries will claim, but she was inarguably the “sitcom mom”.

It’s funny. My peers and I (born around 1970) were, obviously, not alive in the ’50s, but that earlier era loomed large for us. Let me explain: the people who raised us did live in that time, and they were invariably informed by the mores and cultural imperatives of that era. As such, many of our parents were either inculcating or reacting against the buttoned-down (repressed?), black-and-white (i.e., ‘white’) reality as shows like Leave It to Beaver portrayed. Hence, the hippie sensibility that at least had a fighting chance for a few years before the door slammed shut in the back-to-the-future adventure of the Reagan years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Many of us watched syndicated repeats of shows like Leave It to Beaver at an age when the TV functioned as a stop-gap between swim practice and spending the majority of the day at the pool, or in between morning chores (remember those?). It was all about the escapades that Beaver and Wally got into, and Ward and June were, well, not older so much as ageless. Ward was kind of like God (a very white God): firm, upright, not one to be messed with. He brought you into this world and he always had your best interests in mind, even when you screwed up.

Billingsley was, to the average eight-year-old (I’d imagine, unless I’m alone here), less a woman, if you will, but more of a matron; equal parts perfect casting and appearance. She was kind of like Jesus (or Mary?): she helped hold down the fort and there was never any dissension in the Cleaver crib. She was the (ahem) kinder, gentler hand, the one whose shoulder you could cry on and the one who would buck you up even if you let her down. That, after all, is what mothers are for. (The adult looking back on clips from that show can’t help but notice Barbs was a fine-looking woman, indeed. One imagines that outside of the kitchen, once the boys were tucked in and a few very dry Martinis later, with Ward nodding off in his recliner after another heroin fix, our all-American mom was ready to party; let’s hope for all of our sakes this was the case. Just kidding — mostly.)

All of which, I guess, is one way of trying to articulate the obvious: if Americans needed a manufactured (but, according to colleagues, family and friends, more than half-genuine) mother figure to enshrine in sit-com heaven, they all could have gotten much worse than Barbara Billingsley.

Rather than show boring clips from that staid old show, perhaps the most revealing (if only slightly less original) way of illustrating Billingsley’s stature in our collective consciousness is her epic cameo in Airplane — several decades after her Leave It to Beaver prime (and right around the time many of us were getting to know the Cleaver clan, frozen in time, for the first time):

The fact that Billingsley was even asked to play this part speaks volumes about her impact as the dependable, unobjectionable white woman. Needless to say, it resonated, and you can still hear –and appreciate — the collective sigh (equal parts hilarity and relief) that she was willing, and able, to send up that manufactured, if mostly innocuous, stereotype of the mother we all should have had circa 1950-something. I suspect nobody (least of all Billingsley) had any clue how large her role would loom in the second-half of the 20th century, and for that reason alone, it’s impossible to imagine America (the real one, the imagined one, and one we never had and are always chasing, in dreams, re-runs and flashbacks) without her.