The Nelson family is seen June 23, 1954 at Idlewild Airport in New York before leaving for Europe for a vacation. They are shown here leaving the TWA sleeper plane from Los Angeles. From left to right is Ozzie Nelson, Ricky Nelson, Harriet Nelson and David Nelson. (AP Photo)

'Ozzie and Harriet': The 'Real Life' '50s Family Series Launched a Teen Idol

For Ozzie and Harriet, performing became a family business. The Nelsons were one of the first families on mainstream TV and were beloved all over the country when they first launched their show in the '50s. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was on the air for 14 years. It was one of the first shows that wasn't really about anything at all. While critics of the show complain that the sitcom introduced an ideal family that wasn't realistic, it was still a fan favorite at the time. 


Oswald George Nelson, better known as Ozzie Nelson, kicked off his career in entertainment as a singer. After finding success as bandleader of "Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra" in the 1930s, Ozzie fell for their female singer, Harriet Hilliard. Ozzie and Harriet were married in 1935 and welcomed two children together, David and Ricky Nelson

In the '40s, the couple wanted to find a way to spend more time with their boys while still doing what they loved. The Nelsons had joined The Red Skelton Show, but once Red was drafted they decided to make their own radio show: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The show was filled with situation comedy focused on their family. Actors played Ricky and David Nelson from 1944 - 1949, but both Nelson boys joined the show in person when it moved to television in 1952.

After a successful feature film, Here Come the Nelsons, Ozzie convinced ABC to agree to a 10-year contract to bring the Nelson family to the small screen. David and Ricky were (12) and (8) years old, respectively, at the time. Across 435 episodes, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson raised their boys on national television, playing a fictional version of their family. 

Because viewers watched the boys grow from small children to high school and on to college, it was easy for fans to blur the lines between the Hollywood illusion and reality. When the boys married June Blair and Kristin Harmon, their marriages were even written into the show. On the TV show, David went to college to study law, where he joined a fraternity. Similarly, in real life, he studied at the University of Southern California and pursued a career as a director, starting out on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. David died from colon cancer in 2011. 

Ricky, or Rick Nelson, as he preferred the older he got, became a teen idol and used the show to launch a pop career. He received most of the funny lines on the show and, as a result, became the heartthrob. His debut single, "I'm Walkin," was a major hit, he had 12 hits on the billboards in the 50s alone. He also continued acting after his family's show, most notably in the western film Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin. Rick tragically passed away in a plane crash in 1985. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years. 

It's been speculated that Ozzie Nelson was very different from his goofy onscreen persona. He did force his children to grow up in the spotlight and reportedly heavily monitored their lives to make sure that their show was perfect. His final TV show with his wife Harriet was Ozzie's Girls, which centered around the couple renting out their sons' childhood room to college students, played by Brenda Sykes and Susan Sennett. The show only lasted one season. 

In 1975, Ozzie passed away after fighting liver cancer. After her husband's death, Harriet moved into the family's beach house in Laguna Beach. She continued to make a few television appearances through the '80s until she passed away in 1994. Despite whatever was happening behind the scenes, it's clear that the Nelsons created something special enough to entertain viewers for 14 years.


This article was originally published in 2020.





Now Watch: Tina Turner Began Her Solo Career as a Country Singer