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Every family has its "crazy uncle"; the Cleavers have Uncle Billy. An
eccentric personality worthy of any picaresque character in literature,
Uncle Billy (actually Wally and Beaver's great-uncle) boasts of exotic
hunting exploits that never occurred, makes extravagant promises, and
hands out bills of money like donuts. He is a high roller, a teller of
tall tales and an all-around phoney - but a lovable phoney as played by
colorful, gravel-voiced Edgar Buchanan. Beaver is enchanted by this
figure, as any boy would be. But, in a poignant ending, he must
experience the disillusionment of learning - the hard way - what sort
of person Uncle Billy really is.
This is one of the truly great "Beavers," a near-serious drama to rival the third-season episode "Beaver and Andy." It shows Beaver traveling a trajectory from innocence to experience and wisdom, by way of an emotional crisis: discovering Billy's true nature at a hotel barber shop. "Uncle Billy" shows Beaver and Wally having to deal with an adult who is like a child in many ways. Ward and June are wary of the influence Uncle Billy might have on the boys, but at the same time want them to respect an elder relative; this is the central conflict.
Uncle Billy returned for a sequel episode in the final season ("Uncle Billy's Visit"); in that episode he is less of a rogue and more of an indulgent relative. "Uncle Billy" is BEAVER at its best.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Morning at the Cleavers starts with a call, Ward sounds happy until the
boys leave. Then he tells June that his Uncle Billy is coming for
dinner, and we can tell something is up. When returning from school
they notice a ritzy car and figure its company. Turns out it Uncle
Billy who makes friends fast when he hands each boy ten dollars.
June wants Ward to take the money but Ward refuses. At dinner Uncle Billy entertains the boys with TALL tales that the boys just love. Edgar Buchanan is Uncle Billy and is pure Edgar Buchanan at his best just full of charm and laughs.
Billy promises to send Wally a rifle he shot a bear with; and Beaver is promised a bamboo pole and spinning real. Things are going well until Uncle Billy makes a fatal mistake: he tells the boys how he took their dad sailfish fishing in Mexico; a story Ward has just told June was a lot of baloney.
Now the stage is set. What will the boys do when they realize Uncle Billy is just a nice old blowhard? At some point, most of us realize the people we look up to have feet of clay.
Beaver sets his own stage when he heads down to the sporting goods store to wait for Uncle Billy. Wally sort of knows Uncle Billy is a fraud, but Beaver is a true believer. Wally goes to get Beaver and spills the beans. Beaver refuses to accept the truth and heads to Uncle Billy's hotel to confront him. Beaver finds him in the barbershop where he is sounding off to the staff about his exploits and realizes who Billy is.
But when Beaver gets home he demonstrates he understands Billy even better than Ward does. We learn Ward's father had three brothers, but of the family of four Billy was big kid all his life.
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