Barbara Billingsley (1915-2010)
I was very new to Southern California in 1993. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I was doing here. In theory I’d come here to work as a writer, but so far nothing much had happened on that front. Just as I was about to give up hope, a play I’d written and had some success with in New York was scooped up by an independent L.A. theatre producer who wanted to stage it at a gorgeous venue in West Hollywood. I suddenly felt better. At least, I had a reason to stay.
I’d recently made connection with a director whose work I admired from New York. He was also a recent transplant to L.A. and was not particularly busy. With Ken onboard, I felt like the show was in good hands. By February, most of the play had been cast. However, we still hadn’t found an actress for the peach role of the nutty, born-again aunt who tries to run everyone’s life, particularly her ne’er-do-well son’s, by using literal advice taken straight from her Bible.
Our producer (an L.A. theatre veteran) knew that West Coast audiences rather like seeing exhumed stars from yesteryear and started applying serious pressure for us to cast a celebrity in the role. I had no problem with that idea, except that we couldn’t get any name actor’s agent to return our calls. The play paid very little; but it was a nice showcase for a comic actress. Finally, the producer convinced us to audition her old friend, Barbara Billingsley.
Like everybody else of my generation, I remembered Ms. Billingsley as “June Cleaver” the supernaturally perfect mother from the classic TV sit-com “Leave it to Beaver.” The character of “June” was iconic and had somehow created the illusion that American housewives everywhere prepared dinner and vacuumed the house wearing high heels and pearls. The original run of “Leave it to Beaver” was a bit before my time, but the reruns were on five days a week when I was a kid. I knew Ms. Billingsley's work well. I adored her, but was having a hard time envisioning her as a tough as nails Southern matriarch. Under heavy pressure from our producer we agreed to audition her the following week. Then the rains came.
This was my first experience with the legendary El Nino rains that sweep through Southern California every few years. I had never seen anything like it. They felt ominous and (for lack of a better word) “Biblical.” For reasons, I don’t really remember, it was decided that instead of asking Barbara to drive in during the storm, the director, my co-writer and I would drive out to her home in Malibu to audition her in the comfort of her own home.
The morning of the audition it was pouring. There was a nasty wind whipping up and the driving conditions were terrible. As we snaked along the PCH, we twice encountered fresh rock slides that had only recently come hurdling down the hillside. Twice, we considered turning back, but decided that meeting Beaver’s mother was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It took some doing. We were almost 30 minutes late by the time we finally located Barbara’s home which literally sat on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Unable to find a convenient space, we were forced to park some distance away and just as we started trekking back to her house, the wind whipped up; blowing the rain at an almost horizontal angle. By the time we reached Barbara’s front door, we were all soaked. At this point, I no longer wanted to be in L.A. I was a wet, angry New Yorker who felt utterly jerked around. The director rang the bell and a few seconds later, the door opened. And there stood June Cleaver.
Barbara, who must have been in her seventies at the time, looked gorgeous. Tall, trim and beautifully coiffed, she was dressed in a stylishly coordinated sweater and slacks. And although she wasn’t wearing pearls, she was wearing a necklace that looked like pearls. A look of surprise swept over her face when she saw us. It was as if she had been utterly unaware that it was raining outside. “Oh my goodness!” she gushed, “Come in this minute and get out of those wet things! I’ve made some muffins.”
The next hour was somewhat surreal. To say that Ms. Billingsley was a warm and gracious hostess would be a huge understatement. Hanging our coats by the fire, she served us coffee and warm muffins right out of the oven and gave us a short tour of her lovely beach front home where she had lived since her “Beaver” days. Post-“Beaver” she had steered clear of acting for many years and chosen to focus on life with her husband who had been a successful attorney. It was only after his death that she had begun to inch back into acting, beginning with her brilliantly hilarious turn as the “jive-speaking” translator in the classic movie “Airplane.”
Finally we settled into Barbara’s cozy living room. Since I was going to be playing the role of her son, it only made sense that I would read with her. It didn’t go terribly well. Barbara was not great at accents and the play took place in a mythical southern town. Plus, her timing seemed a bit off and most of the jokes weren’t landing. The director praised her first effort, then made a few suggestions. Barbara was very game, but her second reading wasn't much different. Not wanting to rush to judgment, we read an additional scene from later in the play, but it failed to take flight either. It was no reflection on Barbara. Performer and material simply didn't match. After a little more chit chat, we gathered up our wet coats, telling Ms. Billingsley that we had agreed to audition one more actress that day (a total lie) and that we would be in touch. I don’t think we fooled her for a second, but she couldn’t have been more generous and lovely.
On the drive back, nobody said anything about the audition for a while. Instead we oddly started talking about our mothers and how they had stacked up against the legendary “June Cleaver.” Finally, Ken, the director sighed. “Well, I had hoped that would work out.” I agreed. But Barbara was not really a theatre actress by trade or experience and it seemed like we wouldn’t have been doing her (or ourselves) any favors by casting her.
Eventually, we offered the role to a veteran Broadway character actress who could wrench a laugh out of even the grumpiest of audiences. Barbara came to see the play and stayed afterward to speak to every single member of the cast (including the actress we chose over her). Once again, I was struck by her grace and generosity. Everyone was thrilled to meet her. She was particularly kind to me and had nothing but high praise for the script. It was my first time meeting someone whose image had flickered across the TV screen for my entire childhood. I’ve since had this experience a few times (most recently with William Shatner). It’s one of the perks of living and working in Hollywood, and for me it’s never less than thrilling. As a lonely kid, these people represented a world of possibility that was just on the other side of my TV screen. To have Captain Kirk clap me on the back and say “Welcome Aboard” or have Mrs. Cleaver offer me warm muffins on a rainy day, are moments I can’t help but feel extraordinarily grateful for.
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/