Living in the shadow of a teenage idol: David Nelson enters the limelight
David Nelson was the epitome of a show biz kid. The eldest son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, the family rose to widespread recognition on the long-running sitcom/quasi-reality ABC series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
Of course, David’s little brother, Rick, became an overnight rock and roll sensation at the tender age of 17 when he decided to impress a girlfriend who thought Elvis Presley was the greatest singer this side of South Georgia sweet tea. The future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer nonchalantly covered Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’”, and the rest is history.
According to an interview for Philip Bashe’s Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man biography, the one question posed to David throughout his life was whether he experienced any jealousy over his brother’s success. While he denied the accusation, the actor did recount one revealing anecdote that might have brought on a certain degree of resentment.
While the Nelsons were singing “Happy Birthday to You” on David’s 21st birthday in 1957, Imperial Records mogul Lew Chudd burst in unannounced to bestow Rick with a gold record for “Be-Bop Baby.” David sardonically told the author, “At least Chudd could have waited until I blew out the candles.”
Like his brother, David was highly athletic, friendly, and even-tempered. One crucial aspect of their distinctive personalities — David preferred his mom’s company while Rick emulated Ozzie. As their father was a genuine creative genius who had a notorious control streak, in addition to his brother’s massive fame, David had a tougher time finding his own identity.
Although he certainly tried — appearing in motion pictures such as Lana Turner’s Peyton Place , The Big Circus and Day of the Outlaw [both 1959]. The Big Circus influenced the handsome actor to the extent that he actually moonlighted with a traveling circus as a death defying acrobat, while the latter was a vastly underrated, noirish western set in the dead of Oregon winter featuring the excellent Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, and future Gilligan’s Island siren Tina Louise, nearly unrecognizable without her trademark makeup.
However, as the early ’60s dawned, David’s passions were increasingly drawn behind the camera as prospective roles virtually dried up due to his being typecasted on Ozzie and Harriet. Fortunately, his dad was persuaded by Harriet to cede his directorial chair to David for a handful of episodes.
The experience was certainly a training ground for David’s later career. One notable example is the 1970 documentary Easy to be Free which captured Rick and the Stone Canyon Band in concert at the Troubadour in West Hollywood and the Bottom Line in New York City. Syndicated to select television stations across the USA, the special is extremely hard to find [the opening sequence is available on YouTube].
Or Rick Nelson: A Brother Remembers, another remarkable documentary produced, directed, and hosted by the filmmaker which aired November 16, 1987, on the Disney channel. Perhaps the one project closest to his heart, it is in dire need of an official DVD release.
After his father, brother, and mother passed away, David became the keeper of the Nelson legacy, representing his family in distinguished fashion until his death on January 11, 2011, from complications of colon cancer.
In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview, Bashe and Rick’s youngest child, Sam, turn a much-needed spotlight on the quiet member of the quintessential American family. In fact, the duo explores what it was like to grow up in a famous family spearheaded by a dominant father, how The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet impacted both brothers when it was cancelled, David’s patriarchal role after his little brother passed away, his often troubled relationship with Rick’s wife Kris Harmon, whether David was a motivated individual in his later years, why Ozzie and Harriet dropped out of syndication for such a prolonged period, and the series’ legacy.
The Sam Nelson and Philip Bashe Interview
How did the cancellation of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet affect Rick and David’s relationship with their parents?
Philip Bashe: Rick and David both — and David moreso than Rick — separated themselves from their parents. When you think about it, the big job of teenager-hood is to separate from your parents, assert your independence, and find your self-identity.
Well, they never got a chance to do that. In fact, they were stuck with their parents all the time because Dad was your Dad, Dad was also your boss on the set, and Dad played your “fake dad” on the TV show. All things considered, I think they weathered a very difficult situation fairly well.
But it was natural that Rick wanted to assert himself. He didn’t get to act out his teenager-hood until he was married and in his mid-twenties. A lot of people were “searching” — it’s a cliché now — but it was legitimate in the 1960s. Here was Rick at 26 — at a crossroads with his life. What was he gonna do?
As much as they loved and respected their parents, both he and David needed to get away from them. Not so much Harriet, but Ozzie. Some people might see that as, ‘Oh-no! The Nelsons were not what they seemed’.
I would challenge any family to survive working from 1949 to 1966 — if you include the radio version of Ozzie and Harriet — on a show produced by and starring your dad. And you’re trying to grow up at the same time. Very convoluted, almost like playing a three-tier game of chess.
Had the brothers gotten closer before Rick passed away?
Philip Bashe: They were getting there but were very different personalities. I’m an only child, so I don’t know. In families this is a common dynamic. David was closer to Harriet, and Rick was closer to Ozzie. That makes perfect sense: Harriet played a subordinate role to Ozzie just as David had to play a subordinate role to his younger brother.
Everyone who knew them said that David might have had some resentment, but he dealt with it pretty well. These were people who lived a pretty strange life. Rick was nine when he joined the TV show, and David was thirteen.
They had grown up with fame their entire lives, and even before that, they were around fame. From the time they were born, their parents were already extremely popular recording artists.
People tend to project how they think they would act, but very few people had the life experience that Rick and David had. Fame was all they knew; it was normal to them. Maybe that’s why they weren’t as desperate as other celebrities to hang onto it. They rode the waves a little better than many people. Rick and David were different personalities. I enjoyed talking to David. He was very deep.
How did you become the estate manager for your grandparents?
Sam Nelson: I had been working at Capitol Records in A&R in catalogue for about five years with these legacy artists — incredible talents like the Beach Boys, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and my dad.
I helped put together some pretty big projects over there that were very successful, including my dad’s Legacy box set. It was the first time my dad had really shone in a long time, perhaps 30 years. Capitol was extremely surprised that he still had the voice.
While putting those projects together, my Uncle Dave got in touch with me. His health wasn’t great, but we weren’t sure how bad it was at that point. But I think he saw the success of the projects I had worked on through Capitol. I was like, ‘My god, I’m basically doing all this work for Capitol that I should instead be pursuing for my own family’.
It was kind of a nice synergy when he called me in and said, “Listen, I want you to be co-captain with me on Ozzie and Harriet.” I think he felt confident with me in that position, and it was a good choice. It was perfect timing for me, and I dove right in.
How would you characterize your Uncle Dave?
Sam Nelson: When Pop died, everybody was kinda lost. Uncle Dave was responsible for putting everything in order. He was a quiet, good guy. As a son, I was looking for my dad, so I definitely wish that Uncle Dave was more like my dad than he was. But he had his own family and his own stuff going on.
My mom and Uncle Dave never really mended fences. But they remained cordial. As time goes by, time goes by. I know that after Uncle Dave passed in January 2010 due to complications from colon cancer, my mom wrote a fantastic letter to his wife, Yvonne. They’re starting to rekindle and communicate a little more. Hopefully that will spawn into something more meaningful.
I wish Uncle Dave had taken Ozzie and Harriet in different directions. I wish he had been a little better in that regard. Nonetheless, I’m proud and honored that he had the courage in me later on to bring me into the fold. He must have been watching the decisions I had made in my life and career.
Was there a reason why your uncle wasn’t more proactive in keeping Ozzie and Harriet alive?
Sam Nelson: The last time Ozzie and Harriet was broadcast was in the early ’90s on the Disney Channel’s late night schedule. Uncle Dave had produced and directed an hour-long documentary about my dad called Rick Nelson: A Brother Remembers, which aired in November 1987 on Disney.
I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me and exclaimed, “Why isn’t Ozzie and Harriet on the air”? As simple as this sounds, the fact of the matter is I don’t know. I remember going to Uncle Dave and asking him why he didn’t keep the series in syndication.
He was in his early seventies, and it was a very daunting task to even begin to deal with Ozzie and Harriet stuff. Honestly, I think he was just tired and not motivated enough to do the work. Perhaps he considered that aspect of his life done. Time goes by very quickly.
At the time, there was this idea that cleaning up the show was exceedingly expensive. The show was the longest running sitcom in television history [1952–1966], and that’s a profoundly huge amount of material to try to conceptualize.
Film transfer in the ’80s was 1500 times more expensive. It doesn’t take that much money today because it’s not rocket science. I think Uncle Dave got to a place where he might have investigated, but he decided not to pursue it.
What is the legacy of the series?
Sam Nelson: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was the longest running, live action sitcom in the history of television. It defined an era in America. It literally raised a generation of Americans. Through my dad, it smuggled rock & roll into the living rooms of mainstream America.
My grandfather was incredibly innovative and incredibly smart. He wore all the hats on the show — editor, producer, director, and writer. He had been a lawyer during his early years. He was also a successful bandleader in the ’30s and ’40s, so there was a lot of compartmentalizing occurring.
I’ve tried to emulate my grandfather in many ways. He had the foresight to realize rock & roll was meaningful and that my dad was a great talent. He helped parlay that into something real in a very big way.
The legacy speaks for itself in the sense that the show has been out of the public consciousness for more than two decades. When it was back on the air in the ’80s and early ’90s, it didn’t have the staying power or significance it did when it first came out.
Today it still resonates. There was no illusion of we’re over here, and you’re over there. It was the people’s show, the first reality type show — a family about a real-life family. People don’t really comprehend all of those elements today, and I want to change their understanding.
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