At Rutgers University, he was an all-around athlete, playing varsity quarterback on the football team and winning boxing, swimming, and lacrosse championships.
He graduated from Rutgers in 1927, but, while coaching high school football to support himself, return to Rutgers for a law degree, which he earned in 1930.
But even though he won scholastic and sports honors, he wound up as a musician. (That is, until he became an actor and producer and director, even including his real-life family on the show with him - but let's not get ahead of the story.)
Modeling himself somewhat after Rudy Vallee, Nelson played saxophone and sang romantic ballads and novelties into a megaphone.
He and his band performed in hotels and ballrooms and for senior proms around the country.
Harriet Hilliard joined them in 1932.
The following year, they began "The Baker's Broadcast," a radio series with Joe Penner, a comic best known for inquiring "Wanna buy a duck?"
The most famous recordings by Ozzie's big band included And Then Some (Brunswick, 1935), About a Quarter to Nine (Brunswick, 1935), Roses in December (Bluebird, 1937), At Long Last Love (Bluebird, 1938), and White Sails (Beneath a Yellow Moon) (Bluebird, 1939).
In the early '40s, Ozzie and Harriet worked on the Red Skelton broadcast, "The Raleigh Cigarette Program Starring Red Skelton," which led to the creation of their own radio show, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," on CBS in 1944.
given name Oswald George Nelson
birth Mar. 20, 1907, Jersey City, NJ
death June 3, 1975, Los Angeles, CA, cancer
wife Harriett Hilliard Nelson [ r.n. Peggy Lou Snyder ], a vocalist, b. Jul. 18, 1909,
Des Moines, IA, m.Oct. 8, 1935, d.Oct. 2, 1994, congestive heart failure
son David Ozzie Nelson, an actor-producer-director, b.Oct. 24, 1936
son Eric "Rick" / "Ricky" Hilliard Nelson, a pop/rock singer, b.May 8, 1940, d.Dec. 31,
1985, plane crash
education graduate, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, 1927; graduate, Rutgers Law School,
hobbies scouting; football; boxing; swimming
On their radio show, a situation comedy, Ozzie played a "nice guy" husband and father, and Harriet his wife.
The show ran ten seasons.
Sons David and Rick at first had been portrayed by child actors, but joined the cast as themselves in 1948.
In 1952, while it was still on radio, the program got started on television, where it lasted for 14 years. In fact, it became a phenomenon, with Ozzie as its producer, director, and co-star.
"Mr. Nelson was, in fact, almost the stereotype of what television sets forth so often as 'the All-American Dad'-bemused by his wife and children, the butt of much of their jokes, but basically the sturdy, sane, if somewhat exasperated father-figure," Albin Krebs later wrote in the New York Times.
Ozzie Nelson in his own words:
"Way back when we started our series on radio . . . Harriet and I decided to just do what comes
naturally. Sure, we were tempted to employ artifice and pretend to be anything but ourselves,
but the thought nauseated us. 'Look,' I said to Harriet, 'we've worked together this far . . . by
enjoying what we were doing. We didn't have to pretend for anyone; so why start now?"
"I don't make arbitrary decisions. When the boys (David and Rick) were small, Harriet made
all the family decisions with me. Two years ago [ 1961 ], we figured the boys were grown enough
to make their own decisions about our series. So Harriet and I threw the decision to them as
to whether or not we should continue or abandon the series. If either one of the boys had said
'let's quit,' we'd have stopped production right then and there."
"Our family has fun at home and it has fun doing this show. Hard work? Sure. But how hard
can work be when you're having fun doing it?"
"As corny, banal, and cliche-choked as the Ozzie & Harriet series was," Chicago Tribune critic Gary Deeb commented, "it boasted a quiet charm and a precious sense of decency-civility might be a better word-that captured the hearts, if not the minds, of much of America for nearly a quarter-century."
In 1973, Ozzie and Harriet returned to the airwaves with "Ozzie's Girls," as an aging couple who took in two college girls, Brenda Sykes and Susan Sennet, as boarders.
Ozzie kept himself in good shape by swimming two miles daily in the Pacific Ocean, which made the two episodes of ill health while in his late 60s all that more puzzling. He underwent liver surgery in late 1974, and remarked, "Isn't that odd for a guy who never drank or smoked?" Then eight months later, he died of cancer.
His devoted wife was at his bedside when death came.
A 1957 LP on the Imperial label, titled, simply, "Ozzie and Harriet," had brought their voices back in front of the country's record buyers, singing ten "oldies-but-goodies" and two recent pops, Sugartime and Catch a Falling Star.
"They were a dependable respite for those who were terrified by the pace of the world," Deeb suggested.
Imperial was the same company which had begun releasing on 45rpm early rock and roll songs featuring son Rick ("Ricky") singing and playing his guitar.
Gary Deeb, "TV/radio: Ozzie Nelson: A nice guy who finished first," Chicago Tribune,
June 5, 1975, p.B11.
Jack Jones, "Ozzie Nelson Dies of Cancer at Age 68; 'Nice-Guy Dad' of Long Run TV
Series," Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1975, p.A1.
Albin Krebs, "Ozzie Nelson, Entertainer, Dead at 68," New York Times, June 4, 1975, p.42.
"Ozzie Nelson, 68, bandleader and TV star, is dead," Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1975,
"Ozzie Nelson dies at 68 with Harriet at his side," unidentified newspaper, June 1975.
Jay Sharbutt, "Harriet's New Life Without Ozzie," Washington Post, Aug. 23, 1976, p.B7.
Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music
(Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc., 1986), pp.334-335.
"Working Hard Pure Fun For Modest Ozzie Nelson," Hartford Courant, Feb. 24, 1963, p.5G.
I would like to expand this tribute, if possible, with a new interview of someone who was important to Ozzie Nelson's life and career. Are you an alumnus of his band, a member of his family, or a collector who is knowledgeable about his accomplishments? Please contact me via e-mail