NELSON, OZZIE AND HARRIET

U.S. Actors

During a period that was to last twenty years, the Nelson Family--Ozzie, his wife Harriet Hilliard, and their two sons, David and Ricky--were regarded as the preeminent icon of the ideal nuclear family. From his bandleading days of the mid-1930s through his reign, a generation later, as the bumbling patriarch of television's best known family, Ozzie Nelson was able to conflate, reduce and transform the professional activities of his family's personal reality into a fictional domestic banality.

Best known for their long-running television series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the Nelson family began their successful togetherness with the marriage of saxophone-playing Ozzie to his "girl-singer," Harriet in the 1930s. Ozzie's deliberate hesitancy and self-deprecating humor were the perfect foil for the sweet and sassy Harriet, who interrupted her songs with sarcastic banter. During the 1940s, Ozzie, Harriet and their band were regulars on radio's Red Skelton show, and in 1944 when Red was drafted into the army, they took over his time slot. For Skelton, the Nelsons stuck to their big band routines with occasional married-couple skits providing non-musical breaks, but when Ozzie conceived the pilot for his own program he decided to venture more into the realm of domestic comedy, writing a script based on his own family life.

Initially the program revolved around the trials and tribulations of bandleader Ozzie and his family. There were many references to Ozzie's rehearsals, road tours, and other musical endeavors, and the comedy sketches were balanced with full-length musical numbers. By 1946 however, these musical interludes were eliminated in favor of a more representational narrative. Until 1949, the roles of their two sons were played by child actors, but a guest appearance by Bing Crosby and his sons convinced Ozzie that he should allow the 13-year-old David and 9-year-old Ricky to play themselves. The boys, especially "the irrepressible Ricky," were an enormous success and lent further potency to the verisimilitude of the purely fictional narratives.

Nelson's business skills were unparalleled (he'd attended Law School at Rutgers) and he negotiated with ABC for the "first noncancellable ten-year contract" which guaranteed a basic salary for ten years whether the Nelsons worked or not. The family was thus virtually immune from sponsor or network interference (one of the reasons, certainly, that Ozzie and Harriet were the only television couple allowed a double bed until 1969's Brady Bunch.)

While in the middle of this contractual period, ABC expressed interest in a television program. As a test, they starred the family in a movie Here Come the Nelsons for Universal Studios. The film, co-starring Rock Hudson and featuring Ozzie as an advertising executive, was a huge success, and in 1952, the television program began filming at General Service Studios. Interestingly, for the next two years, the radio and television programs continued concurrently, with Nelson insisting on completely different scripts for the television show.

Produced under the banner "Stage Five Productions," which included Ozzie, his brother Don, Bill Davenport and Ben Gershman, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, was the result of the uncompromising standards and efforts of perfectionist Ozzie Nelson. He was involved in every single one of the program's 435 episodes as head writer, script supervisor, producer, and editor. And, if he didn't direct an episode, his son, David, did. Story meetings were weekly all night affairs (with an 11:00 P.M. break for ice cream) and took place at the Nelson home in the Hollywood Hills, with the production staff and auxiliary writers Jay Sommers, Dick Bensfield and Perry Grant attending.

A stickler for quality, Ozzie was adamant that his program look different from the inferior kinescope products dominating the television schedule, and he hired Academy Award winner William C. Mellor to shoot the program in the finest 35mm film stock. With preliminary editing complete, Nelson would then rent a Los Angeles theater and screen two or three episodes back-to-back for audiences in order to gauge the placement and intensity of the laugh track cues.

One of the reasons for the program's tremendous following was that audiences actually believed that the Nelsons were truly playing themselves, a myth the Nelson family helped perpetuate. The exterior of the television house was modeled on the real-life Nelson home, and Ozzie incorporated many real-life events, neighbors, family and hobbies into the program. Thus when David took up motorcycles, or when the boys were interested in the trapeze, these would become the focus for a weekly episode. David's marriage to June Blair and Rick's to Kris Harmon occurred off-screen, but the new season joyfully "introduced" the "newest member of the Nelson family," to the television viewer.

The most significant impact of this blending of fact and fiction resulted from Ricky's interest in rock and roll music. Spurred on by a girlfriend's crush on Elvis Presley, Ricky bragged that he too was about to cut a record, and then quickly enlisted his father to make this boast a reality. In April 1957, the 16-year old Ricky released a cover version of Fats Domino's big hit "I'm Walkin.'" As was his habit, Ozzie integrated this latest preoccupation of his son's into a television episode, and "Ricky the Drummer" aired concurrent with the record's release. One million records sold the first week, and for the next six years, Ricky Nelson was to dominate the pop charts with such hits as "Hello, Mary Lou," "Travelin' Man," and "Fools Rush In," all of which benefited from weekly exposure on the television series. With simultaneous promotion in music trade papers, a new song would "debut" at the end of a completely unrelated episode, tacked on in a pseudo-concert with Ricky singing to a mob of squealing, head-bopping extras. Rick's impact on the rock world was crucial, and his eventual induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legitimized his talented contributions. More important than his actual music perhaps, was the fact that in giving their blessing to Ricky's career, Ozzie and Harriet demonstrated to millions of timid middle-class Americans that rock and roll was not a satanic threat, but a viable musical alternative. In an unprecedented response to the thousands of irate letters he'd received, Ozzie scripted 1956's "Ozzie the Treasurer," in which Harriet extols the tension-releasing benefits of "rhythm and blues music."

Both Nelson boys attempted film careers and found moderate success in some big-budget 1950s films--David in Peyton Place, and Ricky in Rio Bravo. By the time of the program's end in 1966, however, the Nelson sons were hard-pressed to find a large popular following. Ricky ventured into country music where he had sporadic success until his 1985 death in a plane crash, and David moved into production, working mainly in commercials and low-budget features. Their parents, too, seemed unable to capture the magic of the earlier years. A boarding-house sitcom, Ozzie's Girls, was cancelled during its first season, and the couple semi-retired, making the talk show circuit and living together in Laguna Beach until Ozzie's death in 1975.

From the outset, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet had a nostalgic feel, resembling Ozzie's 1920s youth in New Jersey more than 1950s Los Angeles. The picket-fenced neighborhoods, the corner drugstore and malt shop featured weekly in this slow-paced half-hour infiltrated American culture at a time of social unease and quiescent distress. In reality, most 1950s fathers were working ten-hour days and commuting long-distances to isolated suburbs. For the Nelsons, however, Ozzie was always home, neighbors still chatted over the back fence, and downtown was a brisk walk away. The Nelsons presented an America that never was, but always wished for, and through their confusion of reality and fantasy worked to concoct an image of American life that is, to this day, mistakenly claimed not only as ideal, but as authentic.

-Nina Leibman


The Nelsons

HARRIET NELSON (Harriet Hilliard). Born Peggy Lou Snyder in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.A., 18 July 1914. Attended St. Agnes Academy. Married: Ozzie Nelson, 1935; children: David Ozzie and Eric Hilliard. Beauty queen hired as vocalist for Ozzie Nelson's Orchestra, 1932; recording artist for Brunswick, Vocalian, Victor and Blue Bird; as Harriet Hilliard, was a leading lady in film from 1936; various radio appearances on Red Skelton's radio program in the 1940s, co-starred with husband Ozzie in radio series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 1944; star of television version of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet 1952-66. Recipient: National Family Week Radio citation by the International Council on Chistian Family Life, 1947; Radio and TV Women of Southern California Genii Award, 1960; Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year; TV-Radio Mirror Reader's Poll Best Husband-Wife Team in TV, seven consecutive years. Died in Laguna Beach, California, 2 October 1994.

TELEVISION SERIES

1952-66 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
1973 Ozzie's Girls

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1976 Smash-up on Interstate 5

FILMS

Follow the Fleet, 1936; She's My Everything, 1936; Sweetheart of the Campus, 1941; Canal Zone, 1942; Falcon Strikes Back, 1943; Here Come the Nelsons, 1952.

RADIO

Joe Penner's radio show, 1933; Red Skelton's radio show, 1940s; The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 1944-52.

STAGE

The Impossible Years; State Fair.

PUBLICATIONS

Nelson, Harriet Hilliard, as told to Cameron Shipp. "My Heart Belongs to My Three Men." Woman's Home Companion (New York), June 1953.

Nelson, Harriet, as told to Stanley Gordon. "The Men in My Life." Look (New York), 11 November 1958.

OZZIE NELSON (Oswald George Nelson). Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A., 20 March 1907. Graduated from Rutgers University, 1927, law degree, Rutgers, 1930. Married: Harriet Hilliard, 1935; children: David Ozzie and Eric Hilliard. Formed a successful orchestra, 1930; several guest appearances with wife Harriet on Red Skelton's radio program in early 1940s; radio series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 1944-52; starred in ABC-Television's popular The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet 1952-66, also produced, wrote, and directed the series; occasional director of episodes for television series such as Adam 12. Recipient: National Family Week Radio citation by the International Council on Chistian Family Life, 1947;TV-Radio Mirror Reader's Poll Best Husband-Wife Team in TV, seven consecutive years. Died in San Fernando Valley, California, 3 June 1975.

TELEVISION SERIES (also producer, head writer and director)

1952-66 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (also              producer, head writer and director)
1973      Ozzie's Girls (also producer, head writer and              director)

FILMS

Sweetheart of the Campus, 1941; Hi Good Lookin', 1944; People are Funny, 1945; Here Come the Nelsons, 1952; Love and Kisses, 1965 (and wrote, produced and directed).

RADIO

Joe Penner's radio show, 1933; Red Skelton's radio show, 1940s;The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 1944-52.

PUBLICATIONS

Nelson, Ozzie. "The Greatest Guy in the World." Coronet (Chicago), July 1949.

Ozzie. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

FURTHER READING

Ames, Walter. "Home Life, Show Life Same in Nelson Family." Los Angeles Times, 16 November 1952.

"The Full Nelson." Time (New York), 16 February 1948.

Gross, Ben. "Ozzie Nelson Gives Secret of Happy H'wood Marriage." Sunday News (New York), 5 March 1961.

"Harriet Hillard." Variety (Los Angeles), 14 August 1938.

Holmes, John R. "The Wizardry of Ozzie: Breaking Character in Early Television." Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Fall 1989.

"Mourning in Sitcomville." The New York Times, 5 October 1994.

 

See also Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; Comedy, Domestic Settings; Family on Television