May 8, 1940 – Rick Nelson:
“You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.“
Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were America’s ideal married couple in the 1950s. Ozzie was handsome, but a little bit dopey, and as far as I could tell he didn’t have a job and instead just puttered around in the Nelson’s big two-story Cape Cod-style house. Harriet happily donned her aprons most and could usually be found in the kitchen. They had two sons, David and Ricky, who were wholesome and good-looking, and whose toughest problems seemed to be getting a date for the prom and asking Dad for the keys to the car.
From 1952 to 1966, an extraordinary 435 episodes of The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet aired. There weren’t really any adventures; 37 years before Seinfeld (1989-1998) it was a show about nothing (there are 180 episodes of Seinfeld). With 14 seasons, The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet (with 30 episodes per season), remains the longest-running live-action television sitcom. In 2018, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia finished its 14th which tied for the record in number of seasons, but those seasons amount to only around a third of the episodes as Ozzie And Harriet.
Leave It To Beaver (1957-1963) aired for six years, and Father Knows Best (1954-1960) lasted nine, but Ozzie And Harriet lasted for far longer because the Nelson family blurred the line between fiction and reality. The show that not only controlled their lives but, in some ways, left them confused about their own reality. It was post-modern in a way. In real life, they were a troubled family, but with the show you had the Nelsons dealing with the Nelsons through the medium that created them. They talked to each other, through the camera, in a way they couldn’t, face to face. The Nelson family, in real life, were hardly the Nelsons they portrayed on television.
The show began on radio in 1944, with Ozzie and Harriet playing themselves and with actors portraying their two boys. Their real sons joined the show in 1949, and then the whole family made the transition to television. The Nelsons’ television home was a detailed replica of their Hollywood home. David and Ricky grew up in front of America.
Ozzie (born Oswald George Nelson) was a musician, an occasional actor and a television producer. Harriet (born Peggy Lou Snyder) was a vaudeville performer starting at three years old and she made her Broadway debut at 13. By 1932, she was still performing in vaudeville when she met the saxophone-playing bandleader, Nelson, who hired her to sing with his band, under the name Harriet Hilliard. They married in 1935.
As Hilliard, she had a respectable career apart from the band. RKO signed her in 1936, and she is in the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers musical Follow The Fleet (1936), where she holds her own against the two stars. She was very much in demand during the World War II, playing leading roles in musicals, comedies, and mysteries.
Both longtime smokers, Ozzie died of cancer in 1975 at 69 years old; Harriet died at 85 in 1994 of emphysema.
Ricky was born Eric Hilliard Nelson in Teaneck, New Jersey. He was known professionally as Ricky Nelson until his 21st birthday when he officially dropped the “y” and simply became Rick Nelson.
He was an important American pop star / singer-songwriter. In 1957, he began his long and successful career as a popular recording artist, one of the Top Teen Idols of the 1950s. His fame led to his film debut in Here Come The Nelsons (1952) with Rock Hudson, and a small role in The Story Of Three Loves (1953) for MGM directed by Vincente Minnelli, where he plays Farley Granger‘s character as a boy. His big break was costarring with John Wayne and Dean Martin in a Howard Hawks‘ western Rio Bravo (1959).
As a musician he had an astonishing 53 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973, including Poor Little Fool in 1958, which was the first Number One song on Billboard’s then-newly created Top Ten chart. He recorded 19 additional Top 10 hits and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
For all his talent, Nelson began his career simply playing himself. He debuted as a singer on his family’s sitcom, and released an album titled Ricky (1957), which went to Number One. In 1959, he received a Golden Globe nomination for “Most Promising Male Newcomer”. When The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet was cancelled in 1966, Nelson made occasional appearances as a guest star on many television programs.
On Christmas day 1961, Nelson began dating Kris Harmon (1945 – 2018), the daughter of football player Tom Harmon and the older sister of hottie actor Mark Harmon. The Nelsons and the Harmons were longtime friends, and a union between their children was much desired by both families. The two young people both had Hollywood upbringings, and high-powered, domineering fathers.
They married in 1963. Harmon was pregnant. Nelson later described the union as a “shotgun wedding”. As Kris Nelson, she joined the show as a regular cast member in 1963. They had four children, including actor Tracy Nelson, twin sons Gunnar and Matthew Nelson who formed the band Nelson.
By 1975, the marriage had deteriorated, shattered by drugs and other demons, and a very public, controversial divorce involving both families was covered in the press for years. In 1977, Kris filed for divorce and after years of legal wrangling, they were finally divorced at the end of 1982. The split was financially devastating for Nelson. Years of more fighting followed.
Kris Nelson said:
”I spent my whole life fighting the fairy tale. First trying to be it, then trying to tell the truth.”
”There’s a huge discrepancy between what was real and what people think was real about the Nelson family and the people involved.”
In contrast to the genial, slightly vague television guy, real-life Ozzie was a dictatorial presence looming over his family. Although the sitcom seemed to embody traditional middle-class values, Ozzie prevented his sons from attending college, reminding them that they were contractually obliged to work on television.
Harriet was even more intriguing, and complicated, than the straitlaced Ozzie. She was briefly married to an abusive comedian and lived the party life until she fell in love with Ozzie and handed over her career to him. She loved gay people, dirty jokes and her cocktails. She had the talent to be a big star, but she made the decision to be Ozzie’s wife.
Rick (he loathed being Ricky) struggled his entire life to escape the sanitized one-dimensional image of the kid brother in the television show. He didn’t know how to be a grown-up. He once said that he didn’t see himself getting older. He was trapped by his television identity.
It was music that consumed him. Even his father, who pushed him to do standards and jazz, was forced to back away when in his early 20s, Nelson selected the music and the session musicians for his recordings and appearances.
”Anyone who knocks rock ‘n’ roll either doesn’t understand it, or is prejudiced against it, or is just plain square. ”
During 1958 and 1959, Nelson had 12 hits on the charts and Elvis Presley had 11. In the summer of 1958, Nelson went out on his first full-scale tour, averaging $5,000 nightly. By 1960, the Ricky Nelson International Fan Club had 9,000 chapters around the world.
Nelson was the first teen idol to use television to promote hit records. His father even had the idea to edit footage together to create some of the first music videos. This creative editing can be seen in videos Ozzie produced for Travelin’ Man (1961).
Nelson appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, but his career was in limbo. He knew and loved music and was a skilled performer even before he became a teen idol, largely because of his parents’ musical background. Nelson worked with the best musicians and his work was very well recorded with a clear, punchy sound.
From 1957 to 1962, Nelson had 30 Top-40 hits, more than any other artist except Presley (53) and Pat Boone (38). Many of Nelson’s early records were double hits with both the A and B sides hitting the Billboard charts.
Nelson preferred rockabilly and rock songs such as Believe What You Say, I Got A Feeling, Hello Mary Lou, It’s Late, Stood Up, Waitin’ In School and Just a Little Too Much, yet his cool, smooth voice made him a natural for ballads. He had major success with Travelin’ Man, Poor Little Fool, Young World, Lonesome Town, Never Be Anyone Else But You, Sweeter Than You, It’s Up to You, and Teen Age Idol, which could have been about Nelson himself.
Then there’s the sad, personal Garden Party, which he wrote after reluctantly making an appearance at a rock revival show at Madison Square Garden in 1971 and being booed because of his long hair and style, so very different than when he was Ricky. He harbored that hurt for most of the rest of his life.
His brother, David, wrote:
”I think Rick carried with him the onus of Ricky Nelson. We all get older and grow up. If the audience still sees him as little Ricky, then that’s their problem.”
In 1985, Nelson began his “Comeback Tour”. He put the “y” back on his name. He sang the songs for which he was famous and released a greatest hits album. He died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1985, on his was to give a concert. The plane was his own Douglas DC-3, which had a history of mechanical problems.
He is buried in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery. His estate was left to his children, with nothing for Kris Nelson.
Rick Nelson was one of my very first crushes. He made me gay.