Ozzie Nelson

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Ozzie Nelson
Nelson in 1937
Oswald George Nelson

(1906-03-20)March 20, 1906
DiedJune 3, 1975(1975-06-03) (aged 69)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park
  • Actor
  • director
  • producer
  • screenwriter
  • musician
  • composer
  • conductor
  • bandleader
(m. 1935)
ChildrenDavid Nelson
Ricky Nelson
RelativesDon Nelson (brother)
Kristin Nelson
Tracy Nelson (granddaughter)
Matthew Nelson (grandson)
Gunnar Nelson (grandson)

Oswald George Nelson (March 20, 1906 – June 3, 1975)[1] was an American actor, filmmaker, musician, and bandleader. He originated and starred in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a radio and television series with his wife Harriet and two sons David and Ricky Nelson.[2]

Early life[edit]

Nelson was born March 20, 1906, in Jersey City, New Jersey, United States.[1] He was the second son of Ethel Irene (née Orr) and George Waldemar Nelson. His paternal grandparents were Swedish and his mother was of English descent. Nelson was raised in Ridgefield Park, where he was active in Scouting, earning the rank of Eagle Scout at age 13. He played football at Ridgefield Park High School and during his college years at Rutgers University. He was a member of the Cap and Skull fraternity.[3] He graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor's degree and earned a law degree from Rutgers School of Law, Newark, New Jersey, in 1930. Nelson was made a doctor of humane letters by Rutgers University in 1957. As a student, he made pocket money playing saxophone in a band and coaching football. Nelson was rejected to be the vocalist for the Rutgers Jazz Bandits, led by Scrappy Lambert and later Hawley Ades. Nelson was not discouraged and was gracious about this rejection when he met Ades years later.[4] During the Depression, he turned to music as a full-time career.[1]



Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in 1936

Nelson started his entertainment career as a band leader. He formed and led the Ozzie Nelson Band, and had some initial limited success.[1] Nelson made his own "big break" in 1930, when The New York Daily Mirror ran a poll of its readers to determine their favorite band. Since he knew that news vendors got credit from the newspaper for unsold copies by returning the front page and discarding the rest of the issue, he cannily had his band's members gather hundreds of discarded newspapers and fill out ballots in their own favor. They edged out Paul Whiteman and were pronounced the winners.[citation needed]

From 1930 through the 1940s, Nelson's band recorded prolifically, first on Brunswick (1930–1933), then Vocalion (1933–1934), then back to Brunswick (1934–1936), Bluebird (1937–1941), Victor (1941), and finally back to Bluebird (1941 through the 1940s). Nelson's records were consistently popular, and in 1934, Nelson enjoyed success with his hit song, "Over Somebody Else's Shoulder", which he introduced. Nelson's primary vocalist was Rose Anne Stevens, who appeared in the 1942 movie Down Rio Grande Way and Tomorrow We Live. Later in his big-band career, Harriet Hilliard replaced Stevens, after the latter's marriage to Colonel Weller. Nelson's calm, easy vocal style was popular on records and radio and quite similar to son Rick's voice, and Harriet's perky vocals added to the band's popularity.[1]

In 1935, Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra, as they were being called, had a hit with "And Then Some", which was number one for one week on the U.S. pop singles chart. Nelson wrote and composed several songs, including "Wave the Stick Blues", "Subway", "Jersey Jive", "Swingin' on the Golden Gate", and "Central Avenue Shuffle".

In October 1935, he married the band's vocalist Harriet Hilliard.[1] The couple had two children; the older, David (1936–2011), became an actor and director, and the younger, Ricky (1940–1985), became an actor and singer.


The Nelson family (clockwise from top): David, Ricky, Ozzie, and Harriet, 1952

Ozzie Nelson appeared with his band in feature films and short subjects of the 1940s, and often played speaking parts, displaying a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, as in the 1942 musical Strictly in the Groove. He shrewdly promoted the band by agreeing to appear in "soundies", three-minute musical movies shown in "film jukeboxes" of the 1940s. In 1952, when his family and he were established as radio and TV favorites, they starred in a feature film, Here Come the Nelsons, which served as the "pilot" for the TV series.

Radio and television[edit]

In the 1940s, Nelson began to look for a way to spend more time with his family, especially his growing sons. Besides band appearances, Harriet and he had been regulars on The Raleigh Cigarette Program, Red Skelton's radio show.[5] Nelson developed and produced his own radio series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.[6] The show originally aired in 1944, with their sons played by actors until 1949. In 1952, it moved to television, where David and Ricky appeared on camera. The radio version continued for another two years, and the last television episode aired in 1966.

The TV show starred the entire family, as America watched Ozzie and Harriet raise their boys. Nelson was producer and director of most of the episodes, and he co-wrote many of them. Nelson's brother, Don, was also one of the writers. Ozzie was hands-on, involved with every aspect of both radio and TV programs. Throughout the 1950's, notably, Ozzie's prior bandleading career and Harriet's singing, acting, and dancing careers were seldom mentioned. The younger audience would have had no idea that Ozzie and Harriet had previously been involved in music.

Nelson appeared as a guest panelist on the June 9, 1957, episode of What's My Line?[7]

His last television show, in the fall of 1973, was Ozzie's Girls, which lasted for a year in first-run syndication. The premise involved Ozzie and Harriet renting their sons' former room to two college girls—actresses Brenda Sykes and Susan Sennett—and portrayed the Nelsons' efforts at adjusting to living with two young women after raising two sons.

For his contribution to the television industry, Ozzie Nelson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6555 Hollywood Boulevard. He has an additional star with his wife at 6260 Hollywood Boulevard for their contribution to radio.

Personal life[edit]

The Nelsons in 1960

He married band singer Harriet Hilliard in 1935. They had two sons, David (born in 1936) and Eric (known as Ricky, born in 1940). The couple remained married until Ozzie's death in 1975. His grandchildren include actress Tracy Nelson and musicians Matthew and Gunnar Nelson. He was also the former father-in-law of Kristin Harmon and June Blair.

Cultural historians have noted that the on-screen laid-back character was very different from the real-life Ozzie Nelson, who has been characterized as an authoritarian figure who monitored every aspect of his children's lives.[8] In 1998, A&E broadcast a documentary entitled Ozzie and Harriet: The Adventures of America's Favorite Family, which depicted Ozzie Nelson as a dictatorial personality who "thwarted his sons, preventing them from attending college and reminding them that they were obliged to work on television".[9] Author David Halberstam has written, "the Nelsons arguably were a dysfunctional family. In real life, Ozzie was a workaholic who stole his sons' childhood (by having them grow up in show business)".[10]

Nelson and his wife were charter members of the Hollywood Republican Committee.[11]

In 1973, Ozzie Nelson published his autobiography, Ozzie (Prentice Hall, 1973, ISBN 0-13-647768-2).


Nelson suffered from recurring malignant tumors in his later years, and eventually succumbed to liver cancer. He died at his home in the San Fernando Valley on June 3, 1975, with his wife and sons at his bedside.

Services were held at the Church of the Hills at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, California, on Friday, June 6.[12] He is interred with his wife and son Ricky in the Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

When his elder son David died in 2011, he was cremated, having chosen a niche in Westwood Memorial Park's outdoor Garden of Serenity columbarium rather than interment in the Nelson family plot.

Selected filmography[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1941 Sweetheart of the Campus Ozzie Norton
1942 Strictly in the Groove Ozzie Nelson
1943 Honeymoon Lodge Ozzie Nelson, Band Leader Credited as Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra
1944 Wave-a-Stick Blues Ozzie Nelson
1946 People Are Funny Ken
1952 Here Come the Nelsons Ozzie Nelson
1952–1966 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet Ozzie Nelson 435 episodes
Director, producer, writer
1956 The Jane Wyman Show Dr. Phil Dunning Episode: "Shoot the Moon"
1958 The Bob Cummings Show Ozzie Nelson Episode: " Bob Becomes a Stage Uncle"
1965 Love and Kisses
Screenwriter, producer
1968 The Impossible Years Dr. Herbert J. Fleischer
1968 The Mothers-In-Law Ossie Snick/Owen Sinclair/Ossie Snick Episode: "Didn't You Use to Be Ozzie Snick?"
1971 Adam-12 Ted Clover Episode: "The Grandmothers"
1972 Night Gallery Henry Millikan Episode: "You Can Come Up Now, Mrs. Millikan/Smile, Please"
1973 Ozzie's Girls Ozzie Nelson 24 episodes
Producer, director
1973 Love, American Style Dan Segment: "Love and the Unmarriage"
1973 Bridget Loves Bernie
Director, 3 episodes


  1. ^ a b c d e f Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 1802. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  2. ^ "Ozzie Nelson". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2012. Archived from the original on November 4, 2012. Retrieved May 2, 2011.
  3. ^ "Skulls of 1927". Rutgers University. Retrieved June 16, 2008.
  4. ^ Garrick, David (April 3, 2015). "Scrappy Lambert". Jazzage1920s.com. Retrieved May 29, 2016.
  5. ^ Hyatt, Wesley, ed. (2004). A Critical History of Television's The Red Skelton Show, 1951–1971. McFarland & Co. p. 190. ISBN 0-7864-1732-3. Retrieved March 19, 2012.
  6. ^ Adir, Karin, ed. (2001). The Great Clowns of American Television. McFarland & Company. p. 270. ISBN 0-7864-1303-4. Retrieved March 19, 2012.
  7. ^ What's My Line? (January 13, 2014). "What's My Line? - Johnnie Ray; Ozzie Nelson [panel]; Janet Blair [panel] (Jun 9, 1957)". Archived from the original on December 12, 2021 – via YouTube.
  8. ^ Felder, Deborah G. (1999). A Century of Women: The Most Influential Events in Twentieth-Century Women's History. Secaucus NJ: Carol Publishing. p. 198. ISBN 1-55972-485-4.
  9. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (June 18, 1998). "Dousing the Glow Of TV's First Family; Time for the Truth About Ozzie and Harriet". New York Times. Retrieved November 3, 2013.
  10. ^ Van Matre, Lynn (June 22, 1993). "Back To The '50s With David Halberstam". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved November 3, 2013.
  11. ^ "Film Notables Open Drive for G.O.P. President". Los Angeles Times. October 20, 1947. p. 8.
  12. ^ United Press International, "Ozzie Nelson Dies, 69", Playground Daily News, Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Volume 30, Number 101, page 9A.

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