From Addiction To TV Scandal: The True Story Of The Nelsons, America’s Original Favorite TV Family


Harriet Previously Married

Although it may be hard to imagine Harriet Nelson married to anyone else, before she met Oswald George Nelson AKA Ozzie, she was married to comedian Roy Sedley. They met at the Cotton Candy nightclub in New York City. They married in 1930 but separated a year later. He was allegedly abusive towards her. Their marriage was annulled in 1933, by which time she was already in Ozzie’s band.

Harriet Previously Married

Meeting

Harriet first appeared on the vaudevillian stage after being introduced to it by her vaudevillian parents. By her teens, she was performing on Broadway. Ozzie, on the other hand, was a Rutgers law student making money on the side by playing music. He eventually became so successful he left school and worked full time as the leader of the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra. He hired Peggy Sue, who performed under the name Harriet Hillard. The two began dating before they married in 1935. Their undeniable chemistry together made them America’s favorite couple for decades, arguably.

Meeting

Start On Red Skelton Show

The two performed on radio and crossed over into film, acting together in movies. They played in musicals such as Sweetheart of the Campus,  Strictly in the Groove, Honeymoon Lodge, and Take It Big. Sometimes they appeared as a duo, and sometimes they would play characters who weren’t together. They became regulars on The Red Skelton Show, performing much of the music there. Based on this success, they created The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Start On Red Skelton Show

Kids Didn’t Play Themselves

It may come as a surprise to you to find this out, but Ozzie didn’t feel that his children were ready to play themselves in the very beginning when the show was on the radio. While he groomed them to perform alongside himself and his wife, voice actors played David and Ricky (Eric). Although these were skilled voice actors, it was important to keep things in the family for Ozzie and Harriet, however, so when David was 12 and Ricky was eight they began performing alongside their parents.

Kids didn’t originally play their roles

The Dark Side Of Oz

It was thanks to Bing Crosby, interestingly enough, that Ozzie was convinced his boys were ready to join their parents. He encouraged Ozzie to give them their break when he guest starred on their show. Although there is no doubt the Nelson boys’ careers got their start because of the family show, Ozzie has been accused of selling his sons’ childhood for the sake of the show and monetary gain. He was described as “dictatorial.”

stole sons’ childhood for monetary gain

10-year Contract With ABC

As a litmus test for how well they would transition to TV, the Nelsons released a film in 1952, titled Here Comes The Nelsons. The film also cast Rock Hudson and Barbara Lawrence. With the success of this film, Ozzie was able to score an incredibly good deal with ABC. According to this, the Nelsons would get paid for 10 seasons, regardless of whether the show got canceled or not. This would work in their favor, as it didn’t perform so well in the beginning.

Signed 10-year contract with ABC

Firsts

The show was groundbreaking for a variety of reasons. For one, it featured the original and prototypical American family that has been redone over and over again in American TV. In addition, it was the first TV show to present a man and a woman in bed together, which was considered scandalous for the time. At this time, the rules, known as the Hays Code, the film industry imposed on itself normally demanded that one of them should have had a foot firmly planted on the ground.

first show to show couple in bed

Rick’s Musical Success

Ricky began his singing career on the show when he was 17, performing a cover of “I’m Walkin’.” Family-friendly Ricky was a suitable alternative to the immoral Elvis Presley and his seductively swinging hips. Rick’s successful music career helped the Nelsons’ TV show and its ratings. This family-friendly image resonated so much with fans that when Ricky performed a Rolling Stones song in 1971, he was booed off stage by his horrified fans, who came to see him perform his oldies. He wrote a song about the incident called “Garden Party.”

Ricky Musical Success

Fake Preemie

Ricky crossed over into movies as well. Around this time he started dating Kristin Harmon, the daughter of football legend Tom Harmon. They married a couple of years later; she was pregnant at the time, which was kept secret. But it became clear when she gave birth only six months after their wedding. However, Ricky insisted that it was a premature  birth to preserve his image, perpetuating the myth of his own innocent nature, although he later described it as a “shotgun marriage.” He even placed his newborn daughter in an incubator.

Fake Premature Baby

Role-model Dad Gotta Get A Job

There was a joke that the only time Ozzie ever left the house was to get ice cream. Indeed, his profession is never given in the TV series, although in the movie he is a women’s undergarment salesmen. His granddaughter, Tracy Nelson, has claimed that Ozzie’s character was a lawyer, but what type of lawyer stays at home all day? Although he didn’t seem to have a job, TV Guide ranked him in their “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.”

Role-model Dad Is Unemployed

Ozzie’s Late Life

After the show ended in 1966, there was a 1971 spin-off directed by David called Ozzie’s Girls, which featured Ozzie and Harriet with two female college boarders. Ozzie released his autobiography, Ozzie, in 1972. In addition, he worked as a director and producer. After suffering a series of malignant tumors in his later years, he passed away in his home in 1975. His two sons and wife were by his side on his deathbed. Cancer would be a plague on the family, as you will later see.

Ozzie’s later career/death from cancer

Ricky & Kristin

After being a child star, Ricky wanted to change his earlier image. In addition, he and his wife lived extravagantly, so he was constantly on tour. They separated and almost divorced in 1975, but decided to get back together to work out their differences. Before they did, however, Ricky was found in their home with two cheerleaders. He claims he was set up. The pair reconciled but separated again. They finalized their divorce in 1982. The whole ordeal ended up costing Ricky upwards of $1 million in legal fees.

Ricky And Kristen’s Issues/divorce

Ricky’s Tragic Death

On December 31, 1985, Ricky and six others were killed when his private plane crashed-landed into a grove of trees northeast of Dallas, Texas. He and his band were scheduled to play a three-stop tour in the southern U.S. Although illegal substance use has been blamed for the deaths, the Civil Aeronautics Board, as well as other agencies, have confirmed that the cause of the crash was the onboard heater short-circuiting and catching fire. The plane reportedly had a history of problems.

Ricky’s Tragic Death

Harriet Also Died Of Cancer

Following her husband’s death, Harriet was largely reclusive, only appearing from time to time. In the early ’90s, David was asked if his mother was in “good spirits” by the Baltimore Sun. “She hasn’t been in good spirits since dad died,” he responded. A smoker since the age of 13, Harriet suffered from emphysema in her later years. She passed away in her sleep in 1994 from congestive heart failure. David was said to have been by her side at the time.

Harriet Also Died Of Cancer/lifelong smoker

David Dies Last

The last of the original four-member Nelson family was the older brother, David. Although overshadowed by his younger brother’s success, he continued in the industry, appearing in movies such as Cry Baby and Up in Smoke. Notably, he also played a murderer in The Big Circus. He tried his hand at directing as well, doing work on the Ozzie’s Girls spin-off. Sadly, he would get cancer later in life. He died from colon cancer at the age of 74. He is survived by his five children and seven grandchildren.

David Dies Last

Substance Abuse

While David’s adult family life has been less in the limelight than it was while he was growing up, Ricky’s family was much more reminiscent of his own childhood under the eyes of the media. This continued after his death. Kristin turned to substances to help her cope with the difficulties she faced in life. Her youngest child with Ricky, Sam, was bearing the brunt of this, allegedly. He called his uncle, Mark Harmon, for help. This began a series of events that would culminate in a custody battle

Substance Abuse

Sam Calls Uncle Mark

Mark Harmon later said he felt Kristin, his sister, was “emotionally gone” and “needed to come in for a rest.” She agreed to let Sam go and stay with Harmon and his wife before checking herself into rehab. When she came out, she said the program had helped. but Harmon and his family disagreed, believing she was lying about taking hard drugs. The Nelsons, Kristin said, were the only ones to see her as a “bona fide human being.”

Sam Calls Uncle Mark

Legal Battle

This kicked off a legal battle over the custody of Sam. Eventually, the two appeared before a judge for trial. Things got quite bad between the siblings, with Kristin following up on the claim that she was addicted to substances with her own counterattack, accusing Harmon’s wife of being an addict as well. Harmon had enough, reportedly going up to Kristin’s lawyer and telling him, “We don’t want to go any further with this. Too much blood has been spilled.” The sides settled.

Legal Battle

Sam Nelson’s Doing OK

Sam went back to his mother, Harmon got visitation rights to see Sam, and all of them agreed to attend family therapy. Nowadays, the internet reports that Sam is an actor, but the last role he is credited for was in 2000. Since then, he has written two books. The first came in 2004 and is called The Addict. It “cuts through gender, racial, and generational gaps to expose the cause of addictions.” In 2015, he published his second book, Quandles: An Introduction to the Algebra of Knots.

Sam Nelson’s Doing OK

Tracey’s Dream

Tracey, Sam’s older sister, was also plagued with cancer. Only a couple years after the death of her father, Ricky, she began to feel weak. She allegedly dreamed her father told her, “I know you miss me, but it’s not time for you to die. You have to go see a doctor.” They found a malignant tumor and diagnosed her with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She overcame this, only to be diagnosed again in 2005 with thyroid cancer and breast cancer in 2010. She beat cancer each time.

Tracey’s Dream

Longest Running Sitcom

Running on TV from 1952 until 1966, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was the longest-running TV sitcom until the record was taken over by The Simpsons. This is a cartoon, however. As far as live-action TV sitcoms go, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia tied Ozzie and Harriet when it was renewed for its thirteenth and fourteenth seasons. If you take into account the fact that the show existed for eight years as only a radio program, it’s even more impressive.

Longest Running Sitcom

Secret To Success

The Nelsons have had their fair share of luck that has helped them out. They originally got their slot on the radio when Red Skelton was drafted for the war effort. In addition, the Nelsons’ show almost never cracked the top 20 most watched shows. So how is it they lasted for so long? ABC was actually a third-rate channel when the Nelsons crossed over into TV. Even when Ricky was successful, Ozzie had to offer ABC Ozzie and Harriet at a discount to keep it running.

Secret To Success

Three Generations At No. 1

The Nelsons hold a record for more than just being the longest-running TV sitcom. No less than three generations of Nelsons have scored number one hits. Ozzie scored a number one hit with “And Then Some,” while Ricky topped the charts with “Poor Little Fool” and “Traveling Man.” Ricky’s twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, started a band called Nelson that found success in the 1990s with their number one hit, “Love and Affection.”

Three Generations At No. 1

Nelson Comic Books

As part of their brand, the Nelsons also expanded into comic books. This might seem odd nowadays, but back in the day, it was fairly common for syndicated programs to seek to boost their success with comics. DC Comics released five issues of these, which featured plots just like those in the TV show. These collectors’ items might well be rare and out of print, but they are a must for any die-hard fan of Ozzie and Harriet.

Nelson Comic Books

Public Domain

Most people may not know this, but almost all of the episodes are public domain. This means that you can see them free of charge, as they are not subject to copyright. The exception is notably episodes in which Ricky Nelson’s singing is featured. These are owned by The Rick Nelson Company, LLC., which is in charge of managing Ricky Nelson’s estate.

Public Domain