David Nelson, the last remaining member of the Nelson family, passed away this week at the age of 74. Boomers will forever remember him for playing the part of himself in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
David Nelson was born in 1936 in New York City. Though he wasn’t a boomer himself, David and brother Ricky figure prominently in the TV memories of the Boomer Generation. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet never cracked the top 10 list for viewers, but we watched the brothers on our TV screens for 14 years as they grew from childhood to adulthood, graduated high school and college, got married and started careers.
It all began with David’s father, Ozzie Nelson. A bandleader who appeared on several radio programs in the 1930s, he met and married actress and singer Harriet Nelson (Peggy Lou Snyder) when she became a member of his band. After a successful radio stint on The Red Skelton Show in the early 40s, the Nelsons got their chance to go it alone when Red Skelton was drafted. In 1944 they began broadcasting The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Right from the beginning, the program dealt with the everyday issues of the parents raising their two sons, making it one of the first reality-based programs. Though drawn from real life, Ozzie, who wrote most of the radio and television episodes, gave himself full artistic license. Their two sons — David and Eric (whose nickname was Ricky) — were too young to appear in the program, so actors played the parts of David and Ricky until 1946.
The show made the transition from radio to television in 1952, when Ozzie pitched the idea to ABC. Their real-life sons were brought to viewers playing the parts of themselves. The TV series aired from 1952 to 1966, the prime years of TV viewing for the earliest boomers. The show went on to become the most idealized portrait of the American family of the 1950s.
Before the Nelsons appeared on TV, they starred in a full-length movie called Here Come the Nelsons. Though the boys had earlier appeared on the radio broadcast, this marked the first time David and his brother Ricky would be seen on screen with their parents.
Usually, David portrayed the older, more thoughtful and responsible child while Ricky was the more impetuous one. David often served as the straight man for Ricky to deliver the punchline. Many of the TV episodes centered around the brothers’ grappling with growing up. When Ricky showed signs of having a talent for singing, his father encouraged him by writing more episodes around Ricky singing a song, though some episodes merely had him sing at the end. The growing popularity and longer screen time for Ricky triggered rumors of a sibling rivalry, and that David held some resentment toward his teen-idol little brother. David Nelson himself, however, denied these rumors years later when he stated, “We were 3 1/2 years apart, so when Rick was funny, I laughed with everyone else. And when he became a popular singer, I rooted for him.”
By the time the series ended, David’s character had graduated college and, unlike in his real life, law school. His character began practicing as a lawyer. When he got married in real life in 1961, his first wife, June, was written into the cast. The same was true for his brother, Ricky.
David appeared in 320 of the 435 episodes, and directed three of them. After the series closed, he appeared as an actor in several TV shows and movies, and, like his father before him, became a respected director and producer in his own right.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet wasn’t among the favorites of Mister Boomer’s family. As with most families, there was only one TV in Mister B’s house, and the children watched whatever the parents watched. There, though the show was viewed from time to time, Leave It To Beaver or, better yet, My Three Sons, were the more popular sitcoms.
In September of 1966, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was cancelled. The show that replaced it also looms large in the annals of boomer nostalgia: Batman. But that, as they say, is a story for another time.
What memories do you have of watching David in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet?