For the last two weeks of 2017 we are going to spend some time with the Nelson family. Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky visited our home every week from 1952-1966. America watched the boys grow from young boys to adult men. Let’s see how the show developed.
Oswald George Nelson was born in New Jersey in 1906. He attended Rutgers and graduated with a law degree, but in the 1920s he put a band together to see if he could make a living from music. A new vocalist named Peggy Lou Snyder joined his band in 1932. Her parents were actors and she grew up on the stage. She had married a comedian Roy Sedley, but he was not funny at home; he was abusive, and she had their marriage annulled. When she joined Ozzie’s band, she changed her name to Harriet Hilliard, and she changed it again in 1935 when she married Ozzie.
They did a few radio shows, eventually ending up on the Red Skelton Show. In 1944, they received their own radio show and they called it The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Their boys were played by actors until 1949 when Ozzie and Harriet felt they were old enough to join the cast. Later Ozzie would be criticized for putting his boys on the show and destroying their childhood, but David said his parents tried hard to give the boys a normal upbringing.
In 1952, Ozzie and his brother wrote a movie called Here Come the Nelsons which was shown on the big screen. It functioned as a pilot for a television show they began that same year. Decades before Seinfeld, these two put together a how about nothing — and everything. It was about their life and what was happening at home. Unfortunately, the downside of portraying yourself on television was the pressure of trying to appear the perfect family when everyone realizes there is no such thing. Growing up before the cameras put a lot of stress on the boys especially to always be “acting.” David once was quoted as saying, “It’s an awfully big load to carry, to be everyone’s fantasy family.”
The Nelsons lived at 822 Sycamore Rd, but the exterior shots were that of their real home at 1822 Camino Palmero St., Hollywood, LA, California. The interior shots, built to resemble their own home, were filmed at Selzick International Studios in Culver City.
Hotpoint was one of their first sponsors, and viewers would have watched a young Mary Tyler Moore as Happy Hotpoint, a dancing pixie. Actors often addressed the audience directly, drawing them into their life.
Other characters who showed up regularly were their next-door neighbor Thorny played by Don DeFore; Don’s son said in real life he was much like Thorny.
Ozzie and Harriet’s friends Clara and Joe Randolph (Mary Jane Croft and Lyle Talbot) and Doc Williams (Frank Cady) were on the show regularly. Ricky’s friend Wally (Skip Young), and Jack (Jack Wagner) who worked at the malt shop also appeared regularly. On several episodes you can see a young Barry and Stan Livingston before they were Steve Douglas’s sons.
The show produced 436 episodes, all written in part by Ozzie, produced by Ozzie, directed by Ozzie, and even set buildings were supervised by Ozzie who was considered a workaholic and quite different from the stammering, hesitant, and slightly absent-minded father he played on the small screen.
When Ricky decided he wanted a rock and roll career, it was written into the show, and his popularity is what kept the show going for a good part of the 1960s.
When David married June Blair, she was written into the show, and when Ricky married Kris Harmon (sister of Mark Harmon and mom of actress Tracy Harmon and the Nelson twins who had the band Nelson), she was written in as well.
A lot of the shows centered around the boys. Many of the situations were taken from real life. When they’re younger, we see them learning life lessons; as they became teenagers, we watched them go through dating issues; and when they became adults, we followed their marriages, parenting choices, and careers.
In 1966, the show began to be considered old-fashioned even though Ozzie tried to update the scripts. When the show was cancelled that year, it was replaced by a new show starring Adam West called Batman.
Ozzie and Harriet tried television again in 1973 with Ozzie’s Girls where Ozzie and Harriet rent out the boys’ rooms to two college students, but the show failed after a year.
Ozzie would go on to appear on the Mothers-In-Law, Adam-12, Night Gallery, Bridget Loves Bernie and three episodes of Love American Style. He passed away in 1975 from liver cancer.
Harriet appeared in a variety of shows also including Bridget Loves Bernie, Love American Style, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Aloha Paradise, and Happy Days but after Ozzie died, she became a bit of a recluse. The last show she appeared on was her granddaughter Tracy’s show, Father Dowling’s Mysteries. She died in 1994 from emphysema and congenital heart disease.
Ricky had a variety of movie and television performances. His music career continued successfully, although his drug abuse ruined his marriage and stalled his career. He was killed in 1985 in a plane crash on his way to a performance.
David appeared in quite a few movies when the show was over and got into directing and producing. He and June divorced in 1975, and he married Yvonne O’Connor Huston. He passed away in 2011 from colon cancer.
I cannot imagine living your growing-up years under the microscope of the entire American public. We have all experienced living near neighbors when they hear something we prefer they didn’t, or we hear something we prefer we didn’t. This family had millions of people watching them, seeing if they lived up to their perfect image.
It’s hard to discuss the show without discussing the repercussions it had on the Nelson clan, but the show itself was a chance to watch a family we admired and hoped to be more like when we became parents. I have learned that you need to love characters for who they are — period. Because, often the real humans behind them will let you down and make you sad. It was hard for me to adjust to watching some of my favorite characters after learning disappointing things about the actors or actresses who portrayed them; often they were not such nice people. So I made a determined effort to keep characters I love separate from any real life issues.
That said, I think Ozzie and Harriet did the best they could to raise their children under the spotlight with as much normalcy as possible. They had to deal with real-life issues at home and then come together and play America’s favorite family. I give them credit just for being able to do that for fourteen years.