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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

June (1915-2010) and Mr. C (1927-2010)

Sometimes it seems like famous people deliberately time their deaths so that the rest of us can have a conversation about popular culture.

But let’s be real. With all the actors in the world, who all have to die sometime, it is inevitable that there will be coincidences in the timing of their passings. But clearly chance, hazard, fate—whatever you want to call it—wants us to have a conversation about sitcom parents. I’ll bite.

You can probably learn something about who we are as a culture by our family sitcoms, from generation to generation. In a way (but only in a way), they represent how Hollywood views the typical American family and, by extension, how Hollywood thinks American families view themselves. So it is interesting to see how these entertainment programs evolve over time. It is also interesting to see how the Hollywood view of a generation’s family sitcoms gets revised over time. The two TV shows most identified with the beloved actors who have left us during the past week, Leave It to Beaver and Happy Days, provide an interesting case in point. The former is the preeminent 1950s family sitcom. The latter is a 1970s revisionist take on the 1950s family sitcom.

But before we go any further, let’s take a moment to pay brief tributes to these two actors.

Billingsley will be forever remembered as June Cleaver, the perpetually patient and concerned mom of Wally and the Beav from 1957 through 1963. She would reprise the role in the 1980s on the series revival Still the Beaver, in a 1984 episode of Movie Macabre, a 1985 episode of Amazing Stories, a 1987 episode of The Love Boat, a 1998 episode of Baby Boom, a 1991 episode of Honey, I’m Home and an 1995 episode of Roseanne. She played on her iconic June persona in such movies as the 1984 TV flick High School U.S.A. and the 1987 Frankie-and-Annette reunion movie Back to the Beach, and she appeared in the 1997 big screen adaptation of the series as Aunt Martha. Oh yes, and let us not forget her single most memorable moment on the big screen: the older white lady who improbably acts as an interpreter for two fellow passengers who speak only the patois “jive” in the granddaddy of all spoof movies, Airplane!

Suffice to say, despite numerous other (admittedly minor) movie roles dating back to the mid-1940s (including an appearance as a secretary in the original Invaders from Mars), she was anchored to the role of June for half a century and always will be. And, in the ensuing social upheaval of the later 1960s, June remained fixed in our memories and imaginations as the perfect mom in a simpler time. We may have smirked at the fact that she was over-dressed for housework, but something about Billingsley conveyed safety. Coincidentally, Billingsley in real life was the mother of two boys. Ironically, her marriage to their father had ended a decade before she first began playing June, the perfect wife and mother. (Her first husband was a first cousin once removed of actor Peter Billingsley, who appeared in another family classic, the 1983 movie A Christmas Story.)

If Billingsley was overwhelmingly defined by one TV character, Tom Bosley was less so, as he was a very busy character actor for five decades. Before he became a fixture on our TVs, he had triumphed as New York Mayor La Guardia on Broadway in Fiorello! He had one of the most comfortably amiable faces to grace the big or small screen and was always a welcome presence, especially in comedies. His movie credits include Love with the Proper Stranger and The World of Henry Orient. Just this year he was seen in the Jennifer Lopez romcom The Back-up Plan. Before Happy Days, he had supporting or recurring roles on The Debbie Reynolds Show, The Sandy Duncan Show and Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, as well as a few episodes of The Streets of San Francisco. Post-Happy Days the TV appearances continued, including the role of a sheriff on Murder, She Wrote and, of course, the title role in Father Dowling Mysteries.

Since 1974 was a year when I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to television, I assumed that Happy Days was spinoff of George Lucas’s hit movie American Graffiti. It wasn’t, even though they both starred Ron Howard and traded on nostalgia for the 1950s and early 1960s. The success of the movie clearly got the series green-lit, but it was actually a spinoff of an episode Love, American Style. The late Harold Gould played Howard Cunningham in that instance, but when it became Happy Days, Howard was played by Bosley.

If stern but fair Ward Cleaver always had the final word in each episode of Leave It to Beaver, Mr. Cunningham was not a similar voice of authority for the family in Happy Days. Instead, it was more likely to be Henry Winkler’s Fonz who summed things up, with his trademark quasi-delinquent jive. And that, in a nutshell, sums up the decade between the two series. Symbolic control of the media had passed from the grown-ups to the kids. Or, to put it another way, from what would eventually be called “the greatest generation” to the baby boomers. This reflected not only the cultural changes wrought by the social turmoil of the 1960s but also the demographic reality that the post-war population cohort was so large that it would inevitably dominate popular culture from the moment it reached maturity. As far as I can determine, Happy Days is as good a place to identify as the turning point where sitcom dads stopped being about calm, reassuring voices of good sense and guidance and began being comic foils often a beat or more behind the wife and the kids. (The culmination of this trend, of course, leads us inexorably to Homer Simpson.)

The names Ward and June have long since become shorthand for an idealized, probably non-existent golden age in American history. The main characters in the 1980s TV drama Thirtysomething called each other Ward and June with deliberate irony, to emphasize how different they were finding real married life as compared to the ideal. Gary Ross’s 1998 movie Pleasantville mocked the Leave It to Beaver paradigm and then went about correcting it through the intervention of 1990s teenagers Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon.

Mostly, this revisionism merely reflects normally changing attitudes and mores. But some of it seems to be a guilty insecurity peculiar to boomers. Like the French generation born in the mid-19th century (the famous mal de demi-siècle), the boomers found it impossible to live up to a preceding generation that had been characterized by world-changing heroism (the Napoleonic wars in the earlier case, World War II in the later one). The only choice was to find different kinds of battles to wage and win and to shrink, retroactively, the triumph of their parents.

It is sad to lose actors who have come to represent in our minds a second mother or a second father. Whatever place those fictional characters have in our culture aside, they would not seem so real to us without the talent and skill of the artists who brought them to life and into our living rooms week after week.

-S.L., 21 October 2010

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