YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The First Family of TV

Television* 'Ozzie and Harriet' went on the air 50 years ago today, forming the template for sitcoms from 'Father Knows Best' to 'The Simpsons.'


On a Friday night 50 years ago today, amid some anxiety from ABC executives about the show's appeal, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" was televised for the first time. They needn't have worried; it stayed on the air for 14 years, setting a record for the longest-running family sitcom.

It's a record that will be tied when "The Simpsons" returns to Fox for its 14th season next month. Even if "The Simpsons" beats the longevity record, it's currently 144 episodes shy of "Ozzie and Harriet's" 435. Anyway, "Ozzie and Harriet" had been a weekly series on radio for eight years before it jumped to TV. (The radio show continued until 1954.)

Obviously, those numbers reflect one of the most popular shows ever. "Ozzie and Harriet" did not quite invent the family TV sitcom--there were others present at the creation, such as "The Stu Erwin Show," which aired from 1950 to 1955--but it created the mold for what we think of as "family sitcom," from which were cast such solid ingots as "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver," right up to such variations on the theme as "Malcolm in the Middle" and, yes, "The Simpsons."

In addition to its longevity, it also has been one of the most mocked, derided and parodied shows, with comics noting Ozzie's seemingly invisible job.

He may have been the butt of jokes, but by any measure the most important ingredient in the show's durable success would have to have been Oswald George Nelson, an extremely savvy and industrious businessman and entertainer. Born March 20, 1906, in Jersey City, N.J., he was an Eagle Scout by age 13. He graduated from Rutgers University, where he was a star quarterback, and attended law school, but he quickly abandoned law for music when the dance band he had formed in college began to enjoy success.

Mix in the next ingredient: Peggy Lou Snyder. Born in Des Moines on July 18, 1909, she took the name Harriet Hilliard when she began in vaudeville. She joined Ozzie's band in 1932, becoming only the second female vocalist featured in a big band (the first was Mildred Bailey, with Paul Whiteman), and they expanded their success with recordings. She also joined Ozzie in marriage, in October 1935. Their first son, David Ozzie, was born in 1936, followed by Eric Hilliard (Ricky) in 1940.

By this time, the late 1930s and early '40s, Harriet, and then both of them, began appearing in movies. By this time too, the touring dance band was in decline. In 1941, the Nelsons moved from New Jersey to Hollywood, where Ozzie became bandleader for Red Skelton's radio program, on which Harriet sang and played several roles.

The sea change came in 1944: CBS offered the Nelsons their own radio show. On Oct. 8 (the couple's ninth wedding anniversary), listeners first heard the chirpy, upbeat opening that people who today are of Social Security age probably still can recall: "From Hollywood--International Silver Co., creators of International Sterling, presents 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,' starring America's favorite young couple, Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard!"

Bemused and Out of Sync

Centered on the couple's real-life personalities, the show initially dealt with the comic trials of a bandleader and his family. Gradually, the content and format developed that would remain essentially unchanged for the next two decades: Ozzie hesitant, bemused and out of sync with what was going on around him, Harriet--like all succeeding sitcom moms--the solid rock of their little universe.

Only when the boys reached their later teens, and especially when Ricky began singing and playing rock 'n' roll on the TV show, did their universe begin to expand and then come apart. At first, the boys were only in the background, mentioned but not heard. When their characters were given speaking roles, they were played by professional child actors. Finally in January 1949, with both of them jealous of their performing counterparts, David and Ricky took over their own roles.

They were a hit, especially brash, effervescent, irrepressible Ricky, responding to the straight lines fed him by his stolid, slightly boring older brother. Ricky's famous catchphrase, "I don't mess around, boy," was thought up by Ozzie's brother, Don, a staff writer.

Ozzie, who almost continuously throughout the family's broadcast history took on the roles of writer, producer and director, didn't mess around, either. Television had poked its head above the horizon, and he was determined to be part of what he was sure was entertainment's future. In 1952, he made "Here Come the Nelsons," their only movie, to pave the way and prove to TV executives that the Nelsons were photogenic.

Los Angeles Times Articles