David Nelson: The More Subdued, Successful Son of Ozzie and Harriet

Herbie J Pilato

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David Nelson's presence in the world of entertainment was more low-key in nature and success than his pop-music icon brother Ricky Nelson.

But David Nelson still made an indelible mark in show business.

David Nelson, who died of colon cancer in 2011, starred with his brother Ricky and their parents in the long-running beloved sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

The entire family, all of whom are also gone now, was multi-talented. And after their historic TV series ended, David decided to focus on the behind-the-scenes elements.

As the Los Angeles Times documented in 2011, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet began on radio in 1944, focusing on the home life of bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his vocalist wife, Harriet Hilliard.

"In 1949, the popular show became a true family affair when 12-year-old David and 8-year-old Ricky replaced the child actors who had been portraying them on radio. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet moved to television three years later, debuting on ABC in October 1952. When the series ended in 1966 after 435 episodes, it had become the longest-running family situation comedy in TV history — as well as serving as the launch pad and showcase for teen idol Rick Nelson’s singing career. In the process of playing fictionalized versions of themselves on television each week for 14 years, David and Rick Nelson literally grew up in front of millions of Americans.

"Indeed," the Los Angeles Times continued to report, "...after David and Rick were married in the early ‘60s, their wives — first David’s wife, actress June Blair, and then Rick’s wife, the former Kris Harmon — became their TV wives. When David enrolled at USC and joined a fraternity after graduating from Hollywood High School in 1954, his TV character started college and joined a fraternity.

"But unlike his TV character, who became a lawyer on the show, David did not go into law. Instead, he launched his career as a director by taking the reins from his director-father for about a dozen episodes of the show in the early ‘60s. He spent the next several decades directing commercials and occasional TV series and movies."

As the Los Angeles Times also noted, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet has been criticized for presenting an idealized version of American family life that few could live up to."

Even David Nelson felt that way. As he told Esquire in 1971, “We would keep up the front of this totally problemless, happy-go-lucky group. There might have been a tremendous battle in our home, but if someone from outside came in, it would be as if the director yelled, ‘Roll ‘em,’ We’d fall right into our stage roles. It’s an awfully big load to carry, to be everyone’s fantasy family.”

As the Los Angeles Times later noted, "From the start, Ricky was given most of the funny lines and, as a result, he received most of the attention."

However, there was not any true rivalry between the Nelson siblings. As David Nelson told, the Associated Press in 1987, “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.”

Clearly, David Nelson was a class act.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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