february 2011


He Led Three Lives

Remembering David Nelson

By David McGee

As it happened, David Nelson, who died on January 11 following a long bout with colon cancer, led three lives. By far the most famous of those was playing himself, or a version of himself, along with the rest of his family—father Ozzie, mother Harriet (both musically inclined, Ozzie had been an orchestra leader and Harriet Hilliard his lead singer, starting together in the early ‘30s; married in 1935, they continued working together for the rest of their careers) and “irrepressible” little brother Eric (or Ricky, as he was called)—starting on radio in 1949, then, following the success of a 1952 theatrical film, Here Come the Nelsons (which also featured a young Rock Hudson) on the popular, indeed groundbreaking, television sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Until surpassed recently by The Simpsons, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet held the distinction as the longest running live or animated sitcom in TV history. (It still holds the live title.)

nelsonsThe Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet centered on the travails of the Nelson family, as parents Ozzie and Harriet tried to help their sons navigate their childhood and teen years. David, the first-born, was a sensible, centered, easygoing guy with all the right answers, usually, and served as a counselor and calming influence on the free-spirited Ricky, who was always beset by problems at school, with girls, or with the everyday challenge of growing up. In the show’s early years, David had a larger role in the weekly Nelson adventures, but when Ricky made his debut as a rock ‘n’ roll musician on April 10, 1957, lip-synching his first single, a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” and followed it with the single’s B side, a dreamy teen ballad titled “A Teenager’s Romance," David’s part became secondary to the burgeoning teen idol stardom of his younger brother ("I’m Walkin’”/“A Teenager’s Romance” sold one million copies in its first week of release, and the show became a powerful marketing medium for Ricky’s music thereafter, which resulted in some of the best rock ‘n’ roll of the era being televised, often featuring Ricky with his band, which included legendary guitarist James Burton). Being in Ricky’s long shadow never bothered David, who had his own ambitions in show business, namely following his father into producing and directing. Dad Ozzie gave him his first break in that regard, turning over three episodes to David’s direction in the 1963 and 1964 seasons. Hence the start of his second life.

‘You’ll agree…everything happens to The Nelsons!’—official trailer for Here Come The Nelsons, 1952

david juneAfter graduating from Hollywood High School in 1954, David attended the University of Southern California. As it was in his real life, so it was in his TV life: when he went to college, the TV David also attended college. When he got married in 1961, to the actress June Blair, his real-life wife also became his TV wife. The couple had two sons before divorcing in 1975. Ricky’s first wife, Kristin Harmon, also became part of the cast after their marriage. Ozzie’s desire for realism even extended to using the Nelson family’s actual home at 1822 Camino Palmero Street in Los Angeles for exterior shots of the fictional Nelson family home.

When the series was cancelled following its 14th season in 1966, David continued acting on TV and in films (his last movie part was in John Waters’s 1990 Cry-Baby; his most acclaimed role was as an acrobat in 1959’s The Big Circus, in which he performed his own stunts and demonstrated considerable skill as a gymnast). The year before Ozzie and Harriet went off the air, David directed three episodes of the TV series O.K. Crackerby, starring Burl Ives and Brooke Adams. In 1973 he directed an Ozzie and Harriet sequel series, Ozzie’s Girls, concerning two young female students who come to live with the Nelsons after David and Ricky have moved out. In 1975 he directed an episode of the popular cop show Adam-12, and in 1984 and episode of Goodnight, Beantown. He also directed five movies, among them 1983’s Last Plane Out (which he also produced), written by Ernest Tidyman and starring Jan-Michael Vincent. His gymnastic skills served him well when he appeared in six of the first seven installments of the TV special Circus of the Stars, featuring celebrities performing circus-style acts at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.

Tragically, David Nelson’s third life was one he stepped into after Ricky was killed in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve, 1985, leaving behind four children: sons Matthew, Gunnar and Sam and daughter Tracy. To a grief-stricken family, David became a tower of strength, subsuming his own sorrow in order to provide emotional support for the other Nelsons.

“When my dad died, it happened so suddenly, but through his own grief David managed not only to take care of my grandmother (Harriet)—and it was just horrible for her—but he really protected Rick’s kids,” Matthew Nelson told the Los Angeles Times’ Randy Lewis.

“David was the executor of the estate, and frankly the estate was really a mess at the time because of all kinds of things: divorce, debt, so many different things. It took a long time, and it was a long struggle for him to straighten things out.

“I really got to see what kind of character he had when my father passed away. He was the guy that stepped up to the plate and said, ‘I’m going to do this for my brother and for his kids. I’ll always thank him for that.”

The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, ‘The Tuba Incident,’ Season 1, Episode 17, aired 1/23/1953: Ozzie and Harriet get into an argument after reading a newspaper article about a woman who leaves her husband because he plays the tuba at home.

Though it may have seemed on the surface of a piece with other placid ‘50s suburban family sitcoms, such as Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, with many of the scripts written by Ozzie himself, did not quite fit the same mold. By portraying semi-fictional versions of themselves, the Nelson family seemed to be satirizing its own subject matter. Having no visible means of employment (“My dad had no job on the show,” Ricky once told me flat out. “No job.”), Ozzie ambled into and out of jams, some of his own devising (and encouraged by his onscreen neighbor, Thorny, played with avuncular warmth by Don DeFore), and was rarely given to Ward Cleaver-style philosophizing when his boys upset the apple cart; in fact, Ozzie often seemed as puzzled as David and Ricky about what was transpiring, and it wasn’t unusual for Harriet to come forward with the rational, sound advice the situation called for—much like The Honeymooners’ Alice Kramden, Harriet may have seemed subservient to her husband, but she often had more on the ball than her mate; her manner was less brusque and sardonic than Alice’s, but in her gentle remonstrations she was every bit as strong and self-assured.

david nelson
Photo:Mark Sullivan

Moreover, as columnist Timothy Sexton notes in “Ozzie and Harriet: America’s First Postmodern Television Show?,” an essay on Associated Content from Yahoo, the Nelsons gave the impression of being acutely hip to the satirical possibilities of playing themselves on their own show. Notes Sexton: “The tempo and rhythm of most episodes is significantly looser than most television shows, often seeming as though the actors are almost improvising half the time. Conversations are punctuated by unusual pauses and moments where the actors seem to be reacting not as the character but as themselves. Nowhere is this made plainer than in the ‘commercials’ that often preceded the actual program. Often presented as what we would call a ‘teaser,’ that short opening scene that rarely has any connection to the actual plot of the episode but exists to present a comforting joke, the commercial adds yet another level to the already complicated structure of the show. These commercial teasers were quite common during the ‘50s, but Ozzie and Harriet lifted them beyond the norm. The commercial, as such, would appear to be part of the show, taking place on the set. A good example is the one where the irrepressible Ricky enters the kitchen and announces to Harriet that he sure hates homework. Being the good mom, she tells him everyone hates homework but he still must do it. He tells her he is supposed to come up with a compound sentence and this is it: ‘My mother likes to cook, and especially likes to cook on our new Hotpoint stove.’ He then asks if that's a good example and Harriet replies it is. And that point Ricky, still apparently in character, goes on to ask ‘It's also a good commercial, huh?’ Harriet responds by taking a beat to consider it as if it were an honest inquiry before tilting her head, nodding and making an almost noncommittal ‘mmmm’ sound. The levels at work in this simple scene are so complex that one could write a research paper on it alone.”

David Oswald Nelson was born on October 24, 1936. He was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1996. Survivors include his second wife, Yvonne; sons Daniel, John, and James; daughter Teri; and seven grandchildren. David was the last surviving member of his immediate family. Ozzie Nelson died on June 3, 1975; Harriet Nelson on October 2, 1994.

Ricky Nelson, ‘It’s Up To You,’ 1962, with James Burton on lead guitar

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