Ricky and David Nelson, the sons of ‘50s TV stars Harriet and Ozzy Nelson, were introduced in the entertainment industry at a very young age. They found success in their professional lives but faced several struggles in their personal lives that, eventually, ended in tragedy for one of them.
Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were, for all the known standards of that time, the best example of the perfect American family, portrayed in the popular sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
"The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" title card. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
The scripted show, which started in radio in 1944, followed the life of bandleader Ozzie and his wife/vocalist Harriet. Their sons, David and Ricky, were too young to take part in the show for its first four seasons, so two actors were hired to replace them.
Then, in 1949, the boys aged 12 and 8 respectively made their first appearance on radio broadcasting, finally making it a real family affair.
“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” made its debut on television three years later, premiering on ABC in October 1952. The series ran for 14 years in which fans got to see David and Ricky grow up through their screens, and even after the end of the show, the boys would keep making headlines.
The Nelson family; (clockwise from top) David, Ricky, Ozzie and Harriet, 1952. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
Ricky Nelson was often given the fun lines of the show, and as a result, he received more attention from fans.
It also helped that the grew up to become a handsome and charming young man with a talent for music, and when he decided to launch a career as a singer, he quickly became a heartthrob.
“It’s an awfully big load to carry, to be everyone’s fantasy family. How long can you keep protecting that image and never let any of the outside world in?" - David Nelson.
Ricky Nelson promoting him as a musical artist on Decca Records, circa 1966. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
Ricky’s double-hit debut single “I’m Walkin’” and “A Teenager’s Romance” reached #4 and #2 on Billboard's Best Sellers in Stores chart. He placed 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and the list’s predecessors between 1957 and 1973.
Nelson was in the middle of his success when he started dating Sharon Kristin "Kris" Harmon in 1961. She was the daughter of football player Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, so she shared the Hollywood upbringing with Nelson, and their parents were more than happy with their union.
Publicity photo of Rick and Kris Harmon Nelson from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
They married on April 20, 1963, and Kris joined the TV show as “fictional” Ricky’s wife. Confusing even more the viewers who were already wondering were the line between fiction and reality was blurred with the Nelsons.
Sadly, Ricky and Kristin’s marriage was going downhill. She told PEOPLE in 1987 that they had become “hippie rock ‘n’ rollers,” doing what everyone else was doing those years—meaning, mostly drugs
Publicity still of Rick Nelson for film The Wackiest Ship in the Army. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
“At first we were in it together. I tried to be one of the guys, to fix the marriage by going on the road and being involved in road stuff that is really not good for anyone. After a while, we were totally messed up, both of us,” she confessed.
Kristin got into therapy and managed to convince Ricky to join her, but he stopped showing up after a while. “I tried telling my family, there’s a drug problem here and we’ve all got to help. But they totally denied there was anything wrong,” she added.
Eventually, Kristin filed for divorce in 1977, what would become a messy legal battle for spousal support, custody and legal fees that finally came to an end in 1982.
Cropped screenshot of Ricky Nelson from the trailer for the film Rio Bravo, 1959. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
While Kristin kept fighting her drug addiction and left her youngest kid under the care of her parents, Ricky continued touring around the country, this time in the company of his new fiancé, Helen Blair.
After Christmas of 1985, Ricky, Helen, and the members of his band left for a three-stop tour of the southern United States. Their last show was scheduled for New Year’s Eve on Dallas, Texas, but they didn’t make it.
Rick Nelson performing on the television program The Jim Nabors Show, 1970. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
Their private plane crash-landed into a cow pasture in De Kalb, Texas. Seven of the nine occupants were killed, including Ricky, only the two pilots were able to exit the aircraft before it was swallowed in flames.
Ricky was 45-year-old at the time of his passing.
Nelson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
David Nelson was the last survivor of the original Nelson family.
He survived his father Ozzie, who died from liver cancer in 1975; his mother Harriet, who died of congestive heart failure in 1994, and his youngest brother Ricky.
Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in 1936. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
David graduated from Hollywood High School in 1954, enrolled at the University of South Carolina, and joined a fraternity. But while his TV character went into law, real-life David pursued a career as an actor, director, and producer.
He made his debut as director by taking the reigns from his father in a dozen of episodes of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” in the ‘60s, and also directed commercials and some chapters in other TV shows.
David had acting roles in films such as “Peyton Place,” “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker,” “The Big Circus,” “Day of the Outlaw,” “30" and “The Big Show.”
David Nelson in a scene from the television program Ozzie and Harriet. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
Five years after the show ended, Esquire interviewed the Nelson family and asked them about the differences between their on-screen and off-screen personas. It was David who gave the most straightforward answer, stating that one family was real, and the other wasn’t.
“We would keep up the front of this totally problemless, happy-go-lucky group,” he said. “There might have been a tremendous battle in our home, but if someone from outside came in, it would be as if the director yelled, ‘Roll ’em.’ We’d fall right into our stage roles.”
The Nelson family; (clockwise from top) Ozzie, Ricky, Harriet and David, 1960. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
“It’s an awfully big load to carry, to be everyone’s fantasy family,” he added. “How long can you keep protecting that image and never let any of the outside world in?”
In 1987, David became the host and narrator of "Rick Nelson: A Brother Remembers," an hour-long documentary where grief-stricken David celebrated the life of his brother.
"I guess I was the right man for the job," David said at the time. "I was the only listener in the family. Mom and Dad and Rick were the musicians."
Always the thoughtful sibling, David didn't include all the slandering stories about his brother on the documentary.
Rick (left) and David Nelson from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet television series. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons images
"Emotionally it was very difficult for me to focus in on Rick. But if I was still hurting, the investigation into the hurt helped put it all into perspective," he said. "As executor of my brother's estate, I've been close to everything that has happened since."
"I determined quickly not to fight the innuendo and slanderous stories in the media. I wanted the show to make a positive statement about Ricky. I don't think he got all the credit he deserved during his lifetime."
Nelson married June Blair in 1961, and they had two sons: Daniel Blair and James Eric. However, their relationship didn't worked out and they were divorced in 1975.
Publicity photo of David Nelson, promoting the September 16, 1964 premiere of the twelfth season of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images
He married Yvonne O’Connor Houston the same year of his first divorce and adopted her three children: John, Eric, and Teri. The couple was together for 36 years until David’s passing in 2011, and they had seven grandchildren.
Nelson died from complications with colon cancer at his Century City home on January 11, 2011. He was 74.
He was cremated and, unlike his parents and brother who rest at the family plot in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, David rests in Westwood Memorial Park's outdoor Garden of Serenity columbarium.