DAVID NELSON: AMERICA’S FAVORITE BROTHER
By Paul Freeman
On Jan. 11, 2011, David Nelson passed on, age 74, following a battle with colon cancer. He was the last remaining star of the iconic TV series “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” I had the pleasure of interviewing David several times and he was always a sincere, down-to-earth, charming fellow.
He was the beloved big brother not only of Ricky Nelson, but of the entire Baby Boom generation.
What follows is a reprint of my 1984 article on David:
Who flies through the air with the greatest of ease, starred in a TV classic that lasted 14 years and has a personal relationship with Chuck E. Cheese?
Why, it’s David Nelson, of course.
We caught up with David during a break from meeting fans at a home savings appearance. The all-American icon is not seen a great deal by the public these days, spending most of his time behind the camera.
He’s 47- though the Nelson genes make him look a decade younger - and the president of Casablanca Productions, a company specializing in TV commercials and industrial films.
David produces and directs promo spots that feature such celebrities as Mr. T and that pizza-peddling rodent, Chuck E. Cheese.
The ever-affable Nelson began receiving on-the-job training in early childhood. “We grew up knowing all these people in the business,” he said, “band members, producers, directors, the soundmen. The technical aspect of the work was fascinating to kids.
“The first three years of my parents’ radio show, other actors played their sons. They’d have a preview on Friday night and then air on Sunday night. One week, when Bing Crosby was the guest star, they let me and Ricky do the preview.
“My brother got such big laughs, my father had to put him on the show. We played ourselves for the last two years of the program.”
Ozzie Nelson eventually decided to make the move into television. “He took ‘Here Come The Nelsons’ to Universal as a feature film property. It had Rock Hudson as the romantic lead. He was a contract player for the studio at that time. They needed a girl to play opposite him.
“My father had seen a young actress in a small part in a Columbia picture and had her read for our picture. He thought she’d be great.
“He went to Universal and told them about her. They said no. They’d decided to use someone who was under contract with them. The girl they rejected was Marilyn Monroe.”
The movie also served as a TV pilot. Seeing the chemistry and the good-natured comedy style, the ABC network picked up the series. “My father went back to the studio to arrange space to film it. They said there was no way they would let television into Universal.”
“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was introduced in the fall of 1952. One of the most comfortable series ever devised, it became ABC’s first successful situation comedy.
The American public loved to watch Ozzie sweetly bumbling his way through believable predicaments. We saw David and Ricky grow from precocious children into teen idols and then responsible adults. All the while, Harriet was a warm, assured, stabilizing force.
David recalled those years with deep affection. “It was great fun. The atmosphere on the set was wonderful. The cast, the crew - we were like one giant family. It became known around the business that to get a call to do our show was like a vacation.”
Did Rick’s emergence as a rock ‘n’ roll sensation cause any sibling rivalry? “I was really proud of my brother,” David said. “He decided what he wanted to do and he did it. The first three guitar chords he learned - the C chords - I taught him.
“Everything he played for a while was in C. When Rick started singing, it gave the show a big boost.”
David was never tempted by offers of recording contracts. “I can’t sing. I’m the only listener in the family. The others all had musical talent.”
David found his niche in a highly unlikely place: the circus. While filming “The Big Circus” in 1959, he took his role of a trapeze artist to heart.
The daring young man honed his skills and performed as a catcher across the country and with famed European circuses. On occasion, his swinging feats served as the opening act for his rocking brother at county fairs. Always eager to tie his sons’ real-life interests into the show, Ozzie shot an episode with David and Ricky performing on the trapeze.
More recently, David has appeared on the annual “Circus of the Stars” TV specials. Nelson doesn’t consider this avocation to be dangerous.
“You really can’t get hurt. Most accidents are in the imaginations of Hollywood producers. Once in a while, a trapeze artist will get shot by a jealous husband, but that’s about it,” David quipped.
Still, this physically demanding activity wasn’t what he wanted as a career. He didn’t want acting to be his main focus either, though he was featured in such films as “Peyton Place,” “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker” and Jack Webb’s “-30-.”
David wanted to be a director and he had years to observe a master of efficiency at work. Ozzie was primarily responsible for the writing, producing and directing of the family TV series. He gave David his earliest opportunities.
“I directed the majority of the shows with the fraternity themes,” David related. “Really, we had three shows going in one: the fraternity episodes that were built around Rick; there were the shows with me in the law office; and then there were stories with Mom and Dad and the posse - that’s what we called the older group - Joe, Clara and their friends.
“I wasn’t actually a law student. That was the only really fictitious thing in the show. We were kind of what we said we were, otherwise.
“Dad graduated from Rutgers law school, planning to be an attorney. He put together the orchestra to finance his schooling. It turned out to be quite lucrative.”
David Nelson untiringly greets those visiting the bank. He graciously answers repetitious questions, signs autographs and poses for snapshots.
Still the perfect son, the ideal brother, he’s a worthy representative of what was commonly referred to as American’s favorite family, the Nelsons.