The Crown Prince of TV sitcom dads, American actor Ozzie Nelson was famous as a bandleader long before television had established itself. Married to actress/singer Harriet Hilliard, Ozzie Nelson guided his orchestra through nightclub dates, radio programs, and minor films on the order of Sweethearts of the Campus (1941). He'd had speaking parts on Red Skelton's program and other radio series of the '40s, wherein he displayed a hitherto untapped gift for comic delivery. This led to the Nelsons' own weekly radio starrer in 1944, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which related the humorously fictionalized home life of a popular bandleader, his wife, and their two very young sons (Ozzie's own kids Ricky and David were impersonated by professional child actors in the first few years of the program, but eventually strong-armed Ozzie into letting them play themselves). Typical of the era were the radio show's wisecracking dialogue and musical interludes; but when Ozzie and Harriet entered television in 1952 (with the whole family along for the ride), the series opted for gentler, more realistic comedy. The year prior to the TV show's debut, Ozzie and entourage appeared in a Universal-International picture, Here Come the Nelsons, which is worth noting if only for the presence in the cast of Rock Hudson and the fact that it was directed by future Tonight Show mainstay Fred De Cordova. Here Come the Nelsons was only a modest success, but the Ozzie and Harriet TV series was an unadulterated hit, running 14 seasons (a record still unbroken for a sitcom). Though there were endless joking speculations as to what TV's Ozzie Nelson did for a living on a series, the "real" Ozzie produced, directed, edited the stories, chose the wardrobe, supervised the casting, and even designed the main "home" set to look like the real Nelson living room. Unlike his stammering, scatterbrained TV image, Ozzie was a stern and well-organized taskmaster, seeing to it that Ozzie and Harriet conformed to his image of what a good TV show should be, rather than the usual TV status quo. One of the byproducts of Ozzie and Harriet was the spectacular singing career of son Ricky Nelson, and the less spectacular but prolific directing career of Rick's brother David. By the time Ozzie and Harriet entered the '60s, Rick's then-wife Kris Nelson (daughter of sports great Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, and brother of film star Mark Harmon) had joined the cast...as Rick's wife Kris. The series finally breathed its last in 1966, but workaholic Ozzie stayed busy with stage appearances and a supporting role in the very non-Ozzie and Harriet sexy film comedy The Impossible Years (1968). Cashing in on the nostalgia craze of the early '70s, Ozzie revived his series with a new title: Ozzie's Girls had Ozzie and Harriet renting out Ricky and David's old rooms to a pair of nubile female college students. Squeezed off the network schedules at the last minute, Ozzie's Girls was syndicated to local stations in 1973, but lasted only one season, as much the victim of changing tastes as inaccessible timeslots. Shortly before his death, Ozzie Nelson published his autobiography, in which he shocked many of his Bible-belt fans by revealing that he was a lifelong atheist.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- At age 13, became one of the youngest Boy Scouts ever to earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
- Was member of the elite fraternity the Cap and Skull at Rutgers University.
- Formed a dance band while at Rutgers and took it on tour after his graduation.
- Played three years of varsity football at Rutgers.
- Made feature-film debut, with his band, in 1940's The Letter, starring Bette Davis.
- In 1941, he and wife, Harriet, began a three-year stint on Red Skelton's radio show.
- In 1944, created and starred in the radio program The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which made the successful transition in 1952 to television.
- Wrote, produced and directed the 1965 feature Love and Kisses, starring his son Ricky and Ricky's wife, Kris Harmon.
- Revealed in his autobiography Ozzie that he was a lifelong atheist.
- Ranked No. 21 in a June 2004 TV GUIDE list of the 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.
- The address of his high-school alma mater in New Jersey is 1 Ozzie Nelson Drive.