Harriet Nelson, '50s model mother, dies at age 85

October 04, 1994|By Burt A. Folkart and Dennis Mc Lellan | Burt A. Folkart and Dennis Mc Lellan,Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles -- Harriet Nelson, whose transition from Ozzie Nelson's band singer to his wife and then mother to their two sons transformed her into the matriarch of one of television's most wholesome and beloved families, has died. She was 85.

Mrs. Nelson died of congestive heart failure Sunday afternoon in her Laguna Beach, Calif., home with her son David, and his wife, Yvonne, at her bedside.

"David was holding her hand," her daughter-in-law said. "She fell asleep and passed away peacefully."

The demure and highly respected Mrs. Nelson, once America's favorite housewife, had lived in quiet retirement for many years. ZTC She had remained generally out of public view since her husband's death from cancer in 1975 and the 1986 air crash that claimed her son Rick, a popular rock 'n' roll performer long after "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" went off the air.

Mrs. Nelson had been admitted to South Coast Medical Center in late August suffering from congestive heart failure. A smoker, she had long battled emphysema.

Asked last month if she were in good spirits, her surviving son David replied: "She hasn't been in good spirits since dad died."

With Ozzie as the helpful, willing but sometimes befuddled husband and Harriet as his knowing, soft-spoken spouse who never strayed far from the kitchen, the Nelsons became a weekly living room symbol of a simpler, gentler America.

"The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," which began on radio in 1944 and aired on television from 1952 to 1966, was the longest-running family sitcom in TV history. In the process of producing 435 episodes, the Nelsons became an American institution. Two decades after the show was canceled, people would still approach Mrs. Nelson and say, "Aren't you Ozzie and Harriet?"

She'd always laugh and say, "Well, I'm one of them."

Harriet Hilliard (born Harriet Louise Snyder in Des Moines, Iowa) was the daughter of theatrical parents who plied the Midwestern theater circuit. She made her stage debut at the age of 6 weeks when her mother carried her on stage in "Heir to the Horrah," and she had her first speaking role when she was 3.

Following her mother to New York after her parents separated, Harriet quit high school three months shy of graduating to join the Corps de Ballet at the Capitol Theater on Broadway. In 1927, when she was 17, she was hired by vaudeville comic Ken Murray to be his straight woman.

For the next year, she worked with Murray and danced in the Harry Carroll Revue, the first vaudeville unit to go out on the Radio Keith Orpheum circuit playing two shows a day. She later worked as straight woman for comedian Bert Lahr and played the Palace Theater four times.

In 1931, Harriet was hired to do a specialty dance act at the Hollywood Restaurant, one of Manhattan's top nightclubs. She was soon serving as mistress of ceremonies and working in production numbers at the club.

A year later, Ozzie Nelson hired her to be the vocalist with his popular dance band. They were an instant hit with the young Westchester, N.Y., crowd during their first engagement at the famed Glen Island Casino. There, they began doing humorous duets, which Ozzie wrote, and it wasn't long before they became a couple off stage as well as on. They were married in 1935.

Harriet made her motion picture debut in "Follow the Fleet" with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in 1936, and although she appeared in several other pictures over the next few years, her priority was being with Ozzie and starting a family.

Having grown up in show business, she once said, "I know there's one thing that's important and that's your family."

Both Ozzie and Harriet achieved their greatest early success on radio, beginning with their regular appearances on comic Joe Penner's "Baker's Broadcast" out of New York in the early '30s. In the early '40s, Ozzie, Harriet and the band joined Red Skelton's new radio show in Hollywood and she not only sang on the show but worked with Skelton in comedy sketches. She played Daisy June opposite Red's Klem Kadidlehopper, Calamity Jane opposite his Dead-Eye and the mother of Junior, "the mean widdle kid."

When Skelton was drafted into the Army in 1944, the Nelsons began their own radio show. "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" began as a day in the life of bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his vocalist wife Harriet Hilliard.

Originally, the radio series featured child actors because the patriarch said he "didn't want any inflated egos at the dinner table." But in 1949, Ozzie -- who wrote much of their material himself -- gave in and with Harriet's blessings let the boys portray themselves.

Many reflected that the only thing that really changed when the Nelsons switched mediums were the voices of Dave and Rick.

On both radio and television, Ozzie portrayed the stubborn husband and father who tried to convince his wife that men were superior by nature, both physically and mentally. She was the forebearing spouse who never argued but always proved him wrong, in one way or another.

Unlike the radio Nelsons, their TV counterparts increasingly became embroiled in the growing pains of the two boys. Rick went from a kid with a crew-cut haircut to a singing idol. The more staid David attended law school and went into practice. And when they both married in real life, their wives were brought into the show.

The closeness that Americans sensed from their favorite TV family was not coincidental. The Nelsons themselves were described as a tight-knit, loving bunch who never let their show business success affect their home life.

In 1973 Ozzie and Harriet -- their children now grown and on their own -- returned to TV with a syndicated series called "Ozzie's Girls," in which they took in two college co-ed boarders. David Nelson produced the half-hour series but Ozzie became ill and it survived only one season.

Mrs. Nelson is survived by her son David, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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