Full Nelson: The Surprising Story of Ozzie and Harriet

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet began on the radio 75 years ago.

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The names “Ozzie and Harriet,” remind most people of the well-loved sitcom that ran from 1952 until 1966 and featured the titular duo and their two real-life sons, David and Ricky. Others recall it as the pad that launched Ricky Nelson to pop stardom. While all of those recollections are correct, the real story of Ozzie and Harriet, both on the air and off, goes back many more decades. The original Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet radio show debuted 75 years ago this week, but the story behind the duo goes back further, and continues to this day.

Ozzie Nelson might have seemed like an unlikely sitcom mastermind. Born in 1906, Nelson became an Eagle Scout, a high school and college football player, and a law student at Rutgers. He was also a musician, and when America fell into the Great Depression, he moved into a music career. Nelson formed The Ozzie Nelson Band (later The Ozzie Nelson Orchestra) in 1930 and produced a succession of popular records. Nelson frequently dueted with Harriet Hilliard. In 1935, the same year that the group scored a #1 record with “And Then Some,” Ozzie and Harriet got married. David was born the following year, and Eric (whom they called Ricky) was born in 1940.

During the 1940s, Ozzie and Harriet wanted to turn from the road life to something more stable with their two boys. Radio beckoned, and they became regulars on programs like The Red Skelton Show. Skelton was drafted in early 1944, and Ozzie decided it was time to create a show of their own. The result was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a domestic radio sitcom featuring the couple and their two boys (played by professional actors in the early years). Debuting on October 8, 1944, it would eventually run for 10 years (with the last two years overlapping with their TV show).

Ricky Nelson sings “I’m Walkin’” (uploaded by Ricky Nelson – Topic / Universal Music Group)

As the 1950s began, the ABC network, which carried the radio series, wanted to move the show into television. This was a frequent strategy at the time, as the networks would break a concept on the radio, and then transfer the familiar property to TV. The Nelsons’ contract with ABC provided for the same opportunity. As a pilot of sorts, the family, with David and Ricky on board, appeared in the feature film Here Come the Nelsons. Its popularity was proof of concept to Ozzie, and he negotiated a fairly revolutionary 10-year deal with ABC that would guarantee the family 10 years of revenue whether the show ran that long or not.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the TV version, launched on October 10, 1952, and stuck around until April of 1966. The show featured what are now fairly common family sitcom plots, but with an almost metafictional layer of verisimilitude. Establishing shots of the Nelson home were of the actual Nelson home, and the interior sets were modeled on their home as well. The show ran long enough for David and Ricky to both get married during its run; as that happened, their real-life wives June Blair(David’s spouse) and Kristin Harmon (Ricky’s wife, and sister of actor Mark Harmon and actor/designer Kelly Harmon) joined the cast as well

Midway through the show’s run, Ozzie took note of the explosive popularity of rock and roll, and of his own son’s talent for it. Ozzie helped get Ricky recorded at Verve Records, where he put down three songs. Ricky performed one of those tunes, Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” on the April 10, 1957 episode of the show, and his popularity exploded. Ricky sent that song to #4 and another song from the session, “A Teenager’s Romance,” to #2 as he did a mini-tour that summer. Ozzie got Ricky at better, five-year deal with Imperial Records, which gave Ricky artistic control that most artists didn’t have at the time, including album art approval. Ricky’s stardom went stratospheric through the last few years of the show; between 1958 and 1959 he even had more hits than Elvis, with 12 songs in the Top 40. Overall, Nelson had 30 Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1962, more than everyone but Elvis and Pat Boone. In 1959, he appeared alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin in Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, which became a massive hit; Wayne attributed much of the popularity of the film to Ricky’s presence.

Studio Publicity Still: “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” Harriet, Ozzie, Dave, June Blair, Kris and Rick Nelson circa 1965; (Alamy)

By the mid-1960s, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was winding down. Ricky’s popularity had waned in the face of the British Invasion, and the series came off as square and dated to younger audiences. Its final episode aired on April 23, 1966, though it would live on for years in syndication. A spin-off, Ozzie’s Girls, which depicted Ozzie and Harriet renting the boys’ old rooms to a pair of college students, ran for one season in syndication from 1973- 1974.

For the rest of his life, Ozzie continued to work as an in-demand television director, helming episodes of shows like Adam-12. He died of liver cancer in 1975. Harriet largely stayed away from show business after Ozzie’s passing, but during the 1980s and early 1990s she recorded intros for the remastered episodes of the original series for Disney Channel; she passed in 1994. David kept acting and was a successful producer of film, television, and commercials until his own death from cancer in 2011.

Ricky also kept acting and performing, and didn’t seem to regret his unusual show biz youth. As he told The Saturday Evening Post in 1976, “I know at the time I didn’t think much about it, going from school to a studio every day. It was hard work, but it was all I’d ever known. It was always the thing that had to be done. Maybe I missed part of growing up, but we weren’t forced into it. It was our decision. I always knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a biologist or something. I wanted to be in show business.” Ricky also insisted that Ozzie and Harriet would have let him or David out of the show at any time they wanted; he said, “They were our parents first.”

After his pop-idol and rockabilly phases, Ricky became a pioneer in the country-rock genre, placing his song “Garden Party” at #6 in the Hot 100 and #1 on Adult Contemporary in 1972. Nelson died in a plane crash while en route to a concert in 1985. His four children with Kristin (whom he’d divorced in 1982) continued the Nelson name into various levels of show business. The oldest, Tracy, born in 1963, became an actress; while she continues to work and has done a number of projects, she remains best-known for Father Dowling Mysteries and her advocacy as a three-time cancer survivor. Twins Gunnar and Matthew formed the rock band Nelson and took their song “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” to #1 in 1990, making the Nelson family the first to have three generations hit #1; the band continues today. Youngest son Sam presently runs a project to digitally archive all 435 episodes of the original series (with commercials intact) for potential streaming and Blu-ray releases.

“(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” (uploaded by NelsonVEVO)

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet remains fondly remembered by audiences that enjoyed its various appeals, from gentle family humor to the stories of the boys to Ricky’s increasingly frequent musical numbers. The series was the longest running live-action comedy in both years and episodes until this year; It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia matched its years this season, but is still almost 300 episodes behind in terms of shows created (owing to the more recent model of shorter seasons, particular among cable programs). The show and the family are an indelible part of America’s music, radio, and television history. With the second generation continuing their work and the promise of remastered episodes down the road, it’s safe to say that we’ll be seeing various Nelson adventures for some time to come.

Read “Eric Hilliard Nelson (Alias Ricky) Celebrates Twenty-Five Years in Show Business,” where Starkey Flythe, Jr. from The Saturday Evening Post visited Ricky Nelson in the April 1, 1976 issue. Subscribe to the magazine for complete access to our digital archives dating back to 1821.

Featured Image: The Nelson Family (Wikimedia Commons)

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