The Nelson Family
Musical and TV entertainers
Ozzie Nelson: Born March 20, 1906, in Jersey City, New Jersey
Harriet Nelson: Born July 18, 1909, in Des Moines, Iowa
David Nelson: Born October 24, 1936, in New York City
Ricky Nelson: Born May 8, 1940, in Teaneck, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2019-20: Performing Arts

Anyone pondering the roots of reality TV would do well to remember “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” The scripted show, which ran for a record 435 episodes from 1952 to 1966, followed the real-life members of the Nelson family as they navigated their way through daily life in small-town America. The family’s two boys, David and Ricky, grew to adulthood right before the eyes of the TV audience.

Ozzie, the family patriarch, was born in Jersey City and raised in Ridgefield Park. He played football at Ridgefield Park High School and as an undergraduate at Rutgers University. He went on to earn a law degree and a doctorate of letters from Rutgers. Rather than practicing law, he started a career in entertainment, as a singer, saxophonist and bandleader.

Ozzie recorded prolifically in the 1930s and 1940s as leader of the Ozzie Nelson Band. His hits included a song he wrote called “Jersey Jive.” In 1932, he recruited a singer, Peggy Lou Snyder, who used the stage name Harriet Hilliard; the two married in 1935. During this period, the couple lived for a time in Englewood and later Tenafly, where Ricky was born. By 1944, after appearing on numerous radio shows, including comedian Red Skelton’s popular program, the couple started their own radio show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” with actors originally playing David and Ricky.

“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” moved to television in 1952 (continuing on radio until 1954). Ozzie was producer and director of most of the episodes, and wrote many. As the boys grew up, Ricky’s talents as a drummer and singer became a central show theme. In 1957, he introduced his single “I’m Walkin’” on the show; it became a No. 4 pop hit.

Propelled by his exposure on the weekly TV show, and his Elvis Presley-like good looks, Ricky emerged as  a major teen idol. His debut album, “Ricky,” reached No. 1 on the pop charts, as did a subsequent single, “Poor Little Fool,” a soft-rock tune that sold more than 2 million copies. A long string of hits followed, including the up-tempo “Hello Mary Lou” and “Travelin’ Man,” which went to No. 1 in 1961. Ricky also appeared in several high-profile films, most notably as a gunslinger in the 1959 release “Rio Bravo,” alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin.

After the family series ended in 1966, Ricky (by then performing as Rick Nelson) tried to shed his teen-idol image, veering toward country as a member of the Stone Canyon Band. In 1972, he had his last and perhaps most enduring hit, “Garden Party,” a song he wrote after getting booed at an oldies show at Madison Square Garden. A 1985 comeback tour ended tragically with Ricky’s death in a New Year’s Eve plane crash in Texas.

As for the rest of the family,  Ozzie continued to work as a TV producer and director; he died June 3, 1975, of liver cancer. Harriet mostly stayed out of the limelight; she died October 2, 1994. David became a film and TV producer; he died January 11, 2011, of colon cancer.

“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” remains the family’s remarkable legacy. It still holds the record for total TV episodes produced, and was the longest running live-action sitcom in U.S. television history until 2021, when it was eclipsed by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (which features another New Jersey Hall of Fame member, Danny DeVito).