I never got to meet David and Rick Nelson, but I did spend several hours one day with their parents, Ozzie and Harriet, who headed America's favorite family.
Ozzie Nelson, a former band leader, and Harriet Hilliard, a singer-actress, were married in 1935. Each appeared in a few movies in the 1930's and '40s, as well as performing on radio. Their career paths merged for good in 1944 when they were asked to create a radio show about their family. At first actors were hired to play the Nelson sons, David, who was born in 1936, and Ricky, born in 1940.
By the late 1940s the boys began playing themselves on radio, and in 1952 the television series, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," was born. The show was presented on radio and television for two years. The TV series continued until 1966. Thus there were millions of Americans who vicariously grew up with the Nelson family.
I met Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in July, 1962, when they were starring in "Marriage Go Round," a comedy that had been a minor Broadway hit four years before, with Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert and Julie Newmar. It was made as a movie in 1961 with Susan Hayward, James Mason and Newmar.
In those days a producer named John Kenley had summer theaters in Warren and Columbus, Ohio. (Later the Warren operation would move to Akron; Kenley would also have theaters in Dayton and Toledo.)
This was the era of celebrity-centered summer theater. There was another such operation south of Akron in a place called Canal Fulton, though that theater had a resident company who worked with a different star each week.
It was a bit of a coup for Kenley to sign the Nelsons, who had seldom played anyone but themselves. They remained pretty much the same in their roles as a professor and his wife, who were forced to deal with a sexy young woman who arrived in hopes of having the professor father her baby. Playing that role in the Kenley production was a then little-known Sally Kellerman. There was one other part, and that was played by veteran actor Lyle Talbot, a long-time regular on the Nelsons' ABC-TV show where he played neighbor Joe Randolph.
The Nelsons took a lot of flak for giving America an idealized version of family life, though in my experience Ozzie and Harriet – especially Harriet – seemed a lot like my parents. And my sister and I got along pretty much the way David and Ricky did, and the situations we got into also were similar, at least until Ricky finished high school and started singing.
Ozzie Nelson was sometimes portrayed as an autocrat, but the person in charge of a television program often has to be a dictator. The Ozzie Nelson who played host for our luncheon interview was just as warm and friendly as he appeared to be on camera, though much sharper and more decisive. In the show Ozzie was a bit vague and clumsy, creating problems his wife had to solve. In person Harriet Nelson was gracious, but generally silent. However, she was proud of what her family had accomplished on television against some tough competition.
"They've thrown the book at us the last two years," she said, speaking of NBC and CBS, the rival networks.
But the Nelsons kept rolling along.
'We stay out of ruts," Nelson said. "We shift the spotlight from person to person or from group to group."
By 1962 the program had a rather large cast of characters. Son David was grown and married to June Blair, who had joined the show. He was working for a lawyer played by Joe Flynn.
Talbot's character had a wife (the very talented Mary Jane Croft), and they often became the show's equivalent of "I Love Lucy's" Fred and Ethel Mertz.
At this point in the series Rick Nelson was in a college fraternity, which introduced another element, one that usually featured a goofy friend named Wally (Skip Young).
The program also had come to depend on the popularity of Rick Nelson, the singer, who was slow to find acceptance from critics. Ozzie Nelson didn't ignore the criticism, he retaliated, using Rick's fan clubs.
"We send a newsletter to the club each week," he told me. "When we hear of an unfavorable remark that has appeared in a newspaper, we tell the club members to write letters to that paper."
That seemed a strange reaction from a man who had been fending off criticism about his television program for several years. Some critics enjoyed poking fun at "Ozzie and Harriet" more than at similar sitcoms ("Father Knows Best" and "Leave It To Beaver," for example), often pointing out that on the program Ozzie Nelson didn't have a job; he was always hanging around the house. He did have an occupation in the 1952 movie, "Here Come the Nelsons." He worked at a public relations agency.
He wasn't the only sitcom character who never went to work. George Burns enjoyed a similar status in his sitcom with his wife, Gracie Allen. That didn't seem to bother anyone.
Ozzie Nelson graduated from Rutgers University where he played football, lacrosse and was a collegiate boxing champion. We spent a lot of time talking sports. When he found out I was from Syracuse, his eyes widened and he gushed a bit about what a great football player Jim Brown was. Nelson then said both of his sons were good athletes.
"Rick could have been the best tennis player in the country," he said, "but he dropped the sport just when he was making a name for himself." (As a teenager Rick Nelson was one of California's top-ranked tennis players.)
He said David was an excellent football player; he also bragged a bit about David's ability to walk a high wire, something he learned in preparation for a role in the 1959 movie, "The Big Circus."
Ozzie Nelson asked me to stick around after lunch and suggested I attend that evening's performance of "Marriage Go Round." That's how I wound up in his dressing room that evening. We were sitting around, making small talk when an agitated Lyle Talbot burst into the room. "If (John) Kenley shows up and asks about me, tell him I'm not here!"
Talbot charged into the restroom and hid. Sure enough, a minute or so later producer John Kenley appeared. Kenley, a transsexual, spent his winters in Florida living as a woman. Why he was pursuing Talbot, I don't know, because the actor was happily married and had four children. Kenley might as well have been in drag that evening for the way he asked, "Has anyone seen Lyle?"
Nelson and I said we hadn't seen Talbot, who remained away from Kenley until the show began. "Marriage Go Round" was not a particularly funny play, but I found the Nelsons' version more entertaining than the movie. I mean, I loved James Mason and Susan Hayward, but they were deadly together, and she had no flair for comedy at all.
Ozzie Nelson would die in 1975, Harriet in 1994, outliving son Rick who died on tour when his chartered plane crashed in 1985. He turned out to be a very troubled, spoiled young man, though his singing ability eventually got the respect it deserved. And while he wasn't much like the Ricky Nelson who grew up on television, his brother, David, made his parents proud. He passed away in 2011.
RE: JOHN KENLEY. I was unaware of it at the time, but apparently there was a tradition at Kenley's theaters to have a cast party after the opening night performance. It was expected that the leading man would open the festivities by dancing with Kenley.
He was a character, all right, but also a producer who was highly respected and successful. When he died in 2009 he was 103 years old.