NEW YORK | David Nelson was a star of TV’s original family sitcom. But as he lived with his family in front of the cameras, he was a star in what also might be seen as TV’s first reality show.
Nelson, who died Tuesday at 74 of colon cancer, was the last surviving member of “America’s Favorite Family,” which is how he, his brother and parents were introduced each week on “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.”
Whether they were the nation’s favorite or not, the Nelsons were welcomed by viewers in the 1950s and early 1960s as a model of calm, reassuring domesticity, with David and younger brother Ricky the ideal baby-boomer lads.
While other sitcoms (“Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver”) also depicted a comfortable, stable home life amid the sitcom laughs, no show had a softer touch than “Ozzie & Harriet.” The neighborly world it occupied, where its everyday stories called “adventures” unfolded, made Beaver Cleaver’s small-town Mayfield seem like Baghdad.
Adding to “Ozzie & Harriet’s” relatability: The show and the nuclear family it showcased were, to a large extent, interchangeable.
The cozy, New England-style house in which the TV-Nelson family lived in mythical Hillsdale was the same house (displayed in exterior shots) as the home on a tree-lined street in Hollywood where David and Ricky grew up, and where, years later, the widowed Harriet continued to reside. That home’s interior was mirrored on a sound stage where the series was shot.
They had replaced child actors during the 1940s run of the radio precursor. Then, when “Ozzie & Harriet” premiered on ABC in 1952, David and Ricky retained their roles in the TV household. They were 15 and 12, but, year by year, they proceeded to grow up through their teens and into young adulthood by the series’ conclusion.
On TV, Ricky, though a popular kid in town for the rock songs he sang (which became a feature of the show), wasn’t seen as the global heartthrob he became in real life.
And Ozzie, who on the show was a cheery, slightly befuddled chap of indeterminate profession, was a dominating show-biz force behind the scenes: The one-time bandleader not only headlined on the sitcom he had created, but also produced, directed and wrote it.
Whatever the differences between the Nelsons on and off the screen, the public paid no notice. So gracefully did the Nelson family comport itself, its public and private identities seemed all of one piece.
After that, in the raw real world, David and Rick divorced the wives who had played their TV spouses. Ozzie died in 1975. On New Year’s Eve 1985, Rick died in a plane crash after years of battling drug addiction and struggling for a comeback in the music industry. Harriet died in 1994, at age 85.