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Dousing the Glow Of TV's First Family; Time for the Truth About Ozzie and Harriet

By Bernard Weinraub June 18, 1998

Ozzie and Harriet. They were America's ideal fantasy couple in the 1950's. He was a bit goofy, never seemed to have a job and was always puttering around the two-story Colonial house. She was an all-purpose Mom who happily wore aprons most of the time and never seemed to leave the kitchen. Their sons, David and Ricky, were virtuous and good-looking, two boys whose toughest problems seemed to be getting a date for the high school prom and asking Dad for the keys to the car.

''That family loomed so large in America's psyche,'' said Peter Jones, the writer and director of a two-hour documentary, ''Ozzie and Harriet: The Adventures of America's Favorite Family,'' to be shown Sunday on A&E. ''The timing was absolutely right for the deconstruction of the American family on television,'' Mr. Jones said, ''and what better case to use but the real family -- the Nelsons -- who had the longest-running family sitcom in history.''

For 14 years, from 1952 to 1966, ''The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet'' was a television staple, an American icon, which may have preceded ''Seinfeld'' as the first show that was really about nothing. (The Nelsons made an extraordinary 435 episodes; by contrast, there are 180 episodes of ''Seinfeld.'')

Unlike ''Leave It to Beaver,'' which ran six years, and ''Father Knows Best,'' which lasted nine, ''Ozzie and Harriet'' may have endured far longer because the Nelson family blurred the line between fiction and reality. The show actually began on radio in 1944, with Ozzie and Harriet playing themselves and actors portraying the boys. Their real sons joined the show in 1949, and the whole family made the transition to television. The Nelsons' television home was a replica of their Hollywood home; David and Ricky grew up before everyone's eyes.

(Ozzie died of cancer in 1975 at the age of 69; Harriet died at 85 in 1994 of heart failure and emphysema.)

Mr. Jones, who recently won an Emmy with John Fricke for their acclaimed A&E ''Biography'' last year of Judy Garland, said that what surprised him now about talking to the remaining members of the Nelson family was that most of them seemed, finally, ready to unburden themselves of intensely private feelings about a show that not only controlled their lives but, in some ways, left them confused about their own reality.

''What made this documentary unusual is that the family, which lived so much of their their lives on television, chose to work through some very private feelings in the same forum,'' said Mr. Jones, a 42-year-old former television journalist whose A & E documentaries have dealt with Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Nat (King) Cole and Jack Benny.

''It was post-modern,'' he said. ''Here you had the Nelsons dealing with the Nelsons through the medium that created them. They were talking to each other, through the camera, in a way they couldn't, face to face.''

What makes the documentary also timely is that it comes out just weeks after the film ''The Truman Show'' opened to the best reviews of the year. It is a dark comedy directed by Peter Weir and written by Andrew Niccol, about a man who starts to realize that his entire life has been a television show and that he must escape.

''On some level,'' Mr. Jones said, ''the Nelsons could be very personal and very intimate because there was this strange safety created by cameras and lights. They were struggling to be real themselves, through the unreality of television. This is what they knew. They were struggling to escape this candy-coated, white picket version of themselves because they knew it wasn't true. And that's 'The Truman Show.' ''

The Nelson family, in real life, were hardly the Nelsons they portrayed on television.

As Kris Nelson Tinker, the former wife of Rick Nelson, said on the documentary: ''I spent my whole life fighting the fairy tale. First trying to be it, then trying to tell the truth.'' (Ms. Tinker talked about her and Rick's free fall from a seemingly perfect couple to a marriage shattered by drugs and other demons.) And as one of her children, Tracy Nelson, the actress, said, ''There's a huge discrepancy between what was real and what people think was real about the Nelson family and the people involved.''

The discrepancies are vast. In contrast to the genial, slightly vague television character he played, the real-life Ozzie, a successful band leader in the 1930's, produced, directed and wrote the shows (he worked all night) and was a dictatorial presence looming over his family. Although the sitcom seemed to embody traditional middle-class values, the documentary depicts Ozzie as a hands-on businessman who thwarted his sons, preventing them from attending college and reminding them that they were obliged to work on television.

In many ways, Harriet Nelson was even more intriguing, and complicated, than the straitlaced Ozzie Nelson. Formerly Harriet Hilliard, a platinum blond nightclub and radio star and close friend of Ginger Rogers, Mrs. Nelson had appeared in vaudeville since she was 3 years old and on Broadway as a teen-ager. She hung out at the Cotton Club, began smoking at 13, was briefly married to an abusive comedian and lived a high-flying life until she fell in love with Ozzie and handed over her career to him.

''She was a bombshell,'' Mr. Jones said. ''She liked gay people. She liked a good off-color joke. She enjoyed her cocktails at night. She had the talent to go on and be a big star, but she made that decision to be Ozzie's wife. And I don't think years passed when she didn't think, 'What if?' ''But certainly the figure that takes on the most complex and almost tragic dimension was Rick Nelson (he loathed the name Ricky), a successful composer and rock star who struggled his entire life to escape the sanitized one-dimensional image of the kid brother in the television show. He died in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1985, at the age of 45, on the way to a concert in Texas, at a time when he was struggling to revive his singing career.

TV's First Teen-Age Idol

''Rick Nelson was a truly talented musician, the first television teen idol,'' Mr. Jones said. ''He was a paradox. He was so charming, so manipulative, but he did not ultimately take responsibility for his life. He didn't know how to be a grown-up, which was chilling. He once said that he didn't see himself getting older. He believed that. In a way, he was trapped by his television identity.'' (Mr. Jones said that living with a strong father had a personal resonance for him: he grew up in Belair, Calif., and is the son of Thomas V. Jones, former longtime chairman of the Northrop Corporation.)

It was music that consumed Rick. Even Ozzie was forced to back away when Rick, in his early 20's, selected the music and musicians for his recordings and appearances. Dwight Yoakum, the country-music star, said in the documentary: ''If you really want to find an interesting chapter on being subtle, it's Rick Nelson. And the brilliance of that subtlety.''

Rick's hit songs included ''Travelin' Man,'' ''Hello, Mary Lou,'' and the sad, personal ''Garden Party,'' which he wrote after reluctantly making a 1971 appearance at a rock revival at Madison Square Garden and being booed because of his long hair and style, a far cry from little Ricky.

''He harbored that hurt for most of the rest of his life -- that he could not be accepted by his peers,'' Ms. Tinker said in the documentary. ''I mean, there was always that wall of little Ricky the teen-ager in front of them.''

The documentary has already divided the family. Ms. Tinker, the mother of four of Rick Nelson's children, said over the phone that she had seen an early version and had been touched by it. Ms. Tinker's parents were Tom Harmon, the football star, and Elyse Knox, the movie actress. As the documentary points out, Ms. Tinker was 17 when she married the 23-year-old Rick Nelson and she was three months pregnant. Their parents changed the weight on the birth certificate, with the help of a Santa Monica Hospital, to pretend the infant was premature.

Ms. Tinker, the wife of Mark Tinker, a television producer and director, said she that adored her husband's parents -- ''They were the first adults who listened to me'' -- but that Rick was somewhat tormented by his relationship to his father and the show. ''He got confused about what his role was on the show and what he really felt,'' she says. ''What was important to Ozzie was keeping the show on the air, and the boys came second.''

But David Nelson, the older son, who is now 61, said he was disappointed in the documentary. ''I thought it was going to be a biography, not 'Hard Copy,' '' he said, referring to the tabloid show.''My father is depicted as a Simon Legree-type guy, cracking the whip. That wasn't the case. My father went to great pains to see that Rick and I had as normal an upbringing as possible.''

As for the impact of the show on Rick, Mr. Nelson, who is now a director and producer, said: ''It was a double-edged sword. We stayed on as long as we did because of Rick and Rick's popularity. My father would have been the first one to admit that. He told us both that.

''I think Rick carried with him the onus of Ricky Nelson. We all get older and grow up. And as he says in the film, if the audience still sees him as little Ricky, then that's their problem.'' Of the biography, Mr. Nelson said, ''Why not accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative?''

By most accounts, though, the Nelson family was not quite dysfunctional, but close to it.

The Nelsons, David Halberstam in his book ''The Fifties,'' were ''for all their professional success, very different from the family depicted on the show, they lived with an immense amount of pressure and unreconciled issues.'' He went on, ''Chief among these issues was the fact that Ozzie Nelson had in effect stolen the childhood of both of his sons and used it for commercial purposes: he had taken what was most private and made it terribly public.''

Ms. Tinker said that watching the documentary saddened her, especially seeing old pictures of the Nelson family. ''I just wish Rick was around to see them,'' she said.


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