Long before the Kardashians or the Osbournes ever appeared on screen, there were the Nelsons. Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky all starred in the appropriately titled The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, in which they played themselves; eventually, they even brought their real-life romantic partners into the show. The series was all very wholesome and supremely popular with audiences of the ’50s and ’60s, too.
Yet while plenty of time has passed since the show left the airwaves, there are still several behind-the-scenes secrets to be revealed that only the most avid fans of the Nelsons will know. Like the following 20 facts, for instance…
20. The family would have been paid even if the show had been canceled
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet first started out as a 1944 radio series; this in turn was followed by a feature film entitled Here Come the Nelsons. Furthermore, that movie proved so popular that a TV series starring the clan was commissioned by ABC. Patriarch Ozzie wanted to make absolutely sure the vaunted show paid off, though. And so he negotiated a contract that ensured that he and his family got paid even if the ABC project ended up flopping – a deal that was unparalleled at the time.
19. The show is still one of the longest-running sitcoms in American history
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet has 14 seasons in all, and so it was the most enduring American TV comedy ever until a little animated show called The Simpsons overtook it in 2004. At the moment, it’s still the longest-running live–action sitcom, though – or it will be until It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia reaches its own 14th season.
18. The house on the show was the Nelsons’ real home
The massive five-bedroom Nelson house had a starring role on the family’s show – but not many people know that the exterior shots of the dwelling on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were all of the clan’s own property. The sets for the interior rooms were all based on the Nelsons’ own as well. And the house in question still exists to this day; unsurprisingly, though, it’s been remodeled in the intervening years.
17. Harriet Nelson had a difficult early life
On the show, Harriet Nelson presented an image of feminine wholesomeness at contrast with some of the events of her actual past. Harriet – who was born with the name Peggy Lou Snyder – had started working in show business when she was just three. An adolescence full of nightclubs, alcohol and smoking followed, alongside a short-lived and allegedly abusive first marriage.
16. Continuity on the show wasn’t always the best
Television shows could afford to be a little lax about continuity in the ’50s. After all, no-one had the ability to replay episodes over and over while watching out for errors, did they? But when VHS became standard in every household, suddenly mistakes became more obvious. Sometimes, for example, the acne on David or Ricky’s faces would disappear and reappear in between shots.
15. Ricky died young in a plane accident
Ricky Nelson became a teen idol as he got older – but while he later attempted to shake off his squeaky-clean image, a tragedy ensured that he never quite managed to do so. In 1985, not long after beginning a comeback tour, Nelson died in a plane crash. Hundreds of his fans and several high-profile celebrities gathered outside a church for his funeral a week later. And in 1987, the star was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
14. No-one knew what Ozzie’s job was on the show
In the Here Come the Nelsons film, Ozzie had the amusing job of women’s underwear promoter. In the TV show, however, he never seemed to have a job – a state of affairs that led to several jokes over the years. Still, Ozzie’s granddaughter Tracy Nelson has tried to clear up that matter by asserting that the man of the house was actually a lawyer. Just, presumably, one who didn’t take on a lot of cases…
13. The show was honored with a postage stamp
It took a while, but in 2009 Ozzie and Harriet got its own postage stamp. The item was part of a series called “Early TV Memories,” which featured 20 different shows from the ’40s to the ’70s. The postage value of a Ozzie and Harriet stamp is 44 cents – and you can also buy them online for not much more than that.
12. Ricky’s real name was Eric
Although the whole world knew him as Ricky Nelson, the younger son of the famous family was actually given the name “Eric Hilliard Nelson” when he was born. “Hilliard” was the moniker that Harriet Nelson had originally taken as part of her stage pseudonym; it had also been her father’s middle name.
11. David Nelson has admitted that the family wasn’t perfect
All throughout the ’50s, the Nelsons appeared as the perfect all-American family. But once the cameras were off, the reality was often somewhat different. In 1971, speaking to Esquire, David reminisced about how difficult the show had been and how he’d even once punched through a wall during an argument on set. “It’s an awfully big load to carry, to be everyone’s fantasy family,” he said. “How long can you keep protecting that image and never let any of the outside world in?”
10. Ricky’s wife was already pregnant when she married him
Ricky married his wife, Kris Harmon, when she was 17 and he was 23; at the time, however, Kris was three months pregnant. And in the ’60s a child out of wedlock was a big no-no, so the Harmons and Nelsons took drastic action. Specifically, they arranged with the hospital to change the weight on the birth certificate, making it seem like the baby had been born prematurely in case anyone tried to do the math.
9. After Ricky’s death, a custody battle erupted
The relationship between Ricky and Kris was far from smooth-sailing. And when they began divorce proceedings in 1975, these were acrimonious, too. But things arguably got worse after Ricky’s untimely death. Then, Kris’ brother, the actor Mark Harmon, filed for custody of the couple’s youngest son Sam, claiming that Kris was an unfit mother and a drug addict. Eventually the case was dropped – but the wounds remained. Reportedly, the relationship between Mark and his sister was never the same.
8. Elvis Presley watched Ozzie and Harriet
Throughout the late ’50s, Ricky Nelson records were outselling Elvis Presley ones. However, the King of Rock and Roll didn’t bear a grudge, as famous guitarist James Burton, who performed with Nelson for nine years, found out when he started working with him in 1969. Supposedly, Presley never missed an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. “Elvis told me he used to watch that TV show just to see us play our segment at the end,” Burton told Rolling Stone in 1986.
7. Don Nelson wrote the show’s most famous line
Don Nelson, brother of Ozzie, was perhaps the most underappreciated member of the Nelson family. After all, he didn’t work in front of the camera – but behind it, as a writer. He penned Here Come the Nelsons and co-wrote 216 episodes of the show. He also came up with Ricky’s famous catchphrase, “I don’t mess around, boy.”
6. Parents disapproved of the rock and roll in the show
Back in the ’50s, rock and roll was a new and frightening thing to American parents; the genre even sparked a moral panic. And when Ricky began playing rock music on Ozzie and Harriet, the Nelsons were sent letters complaining about such an apparently immoral move. The Nelson parents were pretty cool about it, though – they simply kept on supporting Ricky’s music, and in some episodes they would calmly explain its harmlessness.
5. The children were played by professional actors – at first
When the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet radio show got started, it was decided that David and Ricky were too young to act, even if they’d basically be playing themselves. So, right up until the radio show turned five, David and Ricky were played by professional child actors. Joel Davis portrayed David until he was replaced by another boy called Tommy Bernard; the role of Ricky, meanwhile, was originally taken by Henry Blair.
4. There was an Ozzie and Harriet DC comic
Do Ozzie and Harriet exist in the same universe as Batman? You’d better believe it. In 1949, as the radio show was still going on, DC released five comics featuring “America’s favorite radio family.” Sadly, though, they didn’t really take off. The series was discontinued a year later, in fact, and the comics are now expensive collector’s items.
3. There was a sequel to the show called Ozzie’s Girls
Seven years after The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet finished, the title characters made their return with a new show called Ozzie’s Girls. The premise was that Ozzie and Harriet now rented their sons’ room to female college students and found themselves parenting them. But the show wasn’t a success. It was canceled in 1974 after only one season, and Ozzie would die of liver cancer the following year.
2. The old Nelson home is reportedly haunted
The house once owned by the Nelsons has passed through many hands in the years since the show finished. And it’s a lovely place, located in the beautiful Hollywood Hills, with only one problem: apparently, it’s haunted. People who’ve lived in the house have reported lights and faucets that turned themselves on and off, ghostly noises, mysterious footsteps and even the ghost of Ozzie himself. Ozzie was supposedly wearing a cardigan, though, which is hardly horror story material.
1. Sam Nelson wants to revive the show
Sam Nelson – the son of Ricky and the center of the 1987 custody fight – wants to see Ozzie and Harriet revived. He’s even taken the idea to Kickstarter. “After the passing of my uncle David Nelson, I was granted access to the family archives,” he wrote on the fundraising site. “The next step, and the goal of my Kickstarter project, is to restore the actual footage as well as document modern-day input.” And he’s up to $32,121 from a $10,000 goal, so he may well succeed.