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Behind the scenes, a hero

The straight man of the 'Ozzie & Harriet' show is recalled for his take-charge caring after the death of his brother, Rick.

January 14, 2011|Randy Lewis

During the long television run in the 1950s and '60s of "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," the couple's older son, David Nelson, played the straight man, setting up the antics and often being on the receiving end of punch lines doled out by his wisecracking younger brother, "the irrepressible Ricky."

Not only didn't he mind being given a job often described as thankless, but in real life David Nelson, who died Tuesday at 74, took on a role few of the millions of viewers who watched the Nelson boys grow up ever knew about: behind-the-scenes hero.

That came about after Rick Nelson died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve in 1985, a tragedy that rocked the surviving members of "America's favorite family -- the Nelsons," as they were introduced at the beginning of each week's show.

A son's gratitude

Rick Nelson had been on tour playing the music that had been the source of great passion for him long before he first sang on TV in 1957, around the time he turned 17, performing Fats Domino's "I'm Walking." That record reportedly sold 1 million copies within a week after the show aired, an early demonstration of the power and reach of the still-young medium.

Rick's music career had a series of ups and downs, but he continued recording and touring for two decades after his heyday as America's original teen idol. At the time of the plane crash, which also took the lives of six other people, he'd been divorced, nastily, from his wife, Kristin, and was often separated for long periods from their four children: twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, who became pop stars in their own right in the '90s, their sister Tracy and younger brother Sam.

"When my dad died, it happened so suddenly, but through his own grief David managed not only to take care of my grandmother [Harriet] -- and it was just horrible for her -- but he really protected Rick's kids," Matthew Nelson, 43, said Wednesday from aboard the cruise ship on which he and Gunnar are performing a show that pays tribute to their father's life and career. By extension, it also highlights David's role in the family.

Stepping up

"David was the executor of the estate, and frankly the estate was really a mess at the time because of all kinds of things: divorce, debt, so many different things. It took a long time, and it was a long struggle for him to straighten things out," Matthew said.

"I really got to see what kind of character he had when my father passed away," Matthew said. "He was the guy that stepped up to the plate and said, 'I'm going to do this for my brother and for his kids.' I'll always thank him for that."

Because Matthew and Gunnar have devoted significant time in recent years to their "Ricky Nelson Remembered" show, they regularly encounter audience members who tell them about the special bond they feel with the Nelson family.

"That will never happen again," he said. "People felt like our family was their family." Ozzie died at 68 in 1975, and Harriet followed nearly 20 years later, in 1994, at age 85.

Most of the twins' time nowadays is spent doing either the Rick Nelson tribute show or touring with their own music. Matthew said their brother Sam took over responsibilities working closely with their uncle on projects involving "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" show. Those projects went onto the back burner in recent years when David began battling the colon cancer that took his life this week.

Legacy of music

"One blessing Gunnar and I had was that when our father passed, we realized we have an amazing legacy of his music, and we feel fortunate that we get to play it from time to time," he said. "The 'Ozzie & Harriet' show is still around and I hope we can work with David's family so that America gets to see more of it.

"When I look at the episodes and go through them, we're serious about preserving that legacy and forwarding it into the future, and for the kids I intend to have, because they're our home movies. And it would not have worked without David. He was the quintessential straight man. He set up all the jokes, and it would not have worked without him, on so many different levels. You see how talented he was."

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randy.lewis@latimes.com

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