Nelson, Harriet Hilliard
Nelson, Harriet Hilliard
(b. 18 July 1909 in Des Moines, Iowa; d. 2 October 1994 in Laguna Beach, California), actress characterized as the ideal American housewife and mother when she played herself on the long-running radio and television series the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
The future Harriet Nelson was born Peggy Lou Snyder, the daughter of actor Roy Hilliard (whose real name was Snyder) and actress Hazel McNutt. The Hilliards ran and starred in a midwestern stock company; their only child was supposedly first brought on stage at the age of six months. She had her first speaking role at age three. Educated at Saint Agnes Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, she traveled and acted with her parents on vacations.
When Roy and Hazel Hilliard separated in 1925, Harriet Hilliard moved with her mother to New York City, where she studied with choreographer Chester Hale and danced in his Capitol Theatre Corps de Ballet. At age seventeen, she appeared on the New York stage in a musical farce titled The Blonde Sinner. This work led her to vaudeville, touring with comedians Bert Lahr and Ken Murray. For a brief time she also played straight woman to a comic named Roy Sedley, whom she married in 1930 and left after a year. The marriage was annulled in 1933.
Hilliard returned to New York in 1931 and worked at the Hollywood Restaurant as a singer, dancer, and mistress of ceremonies. There, in 1932, she was discovered by bandleader Ozzie Nelson, who decided that she would give his orchestra the little something extra it needed. Her voice was throaty and not terribly strong, but it pleased audiences, as did her blonde good looks and lively personality. As they toured, Nelson busied himself writing humorous boy-girl duets to sing with her. Their onstage flirtation eventually expanded offstage, and they married in October 1935.
Shortly after the wedding, Harriet Hilliard (she would not adopt her husband’s name professionally until the 1950s) appeared as the romantic lead in Follow the Fleet, a Fred Astaire—Ginger Rogers vehicle. Although her first film was her most important, she kept busy in Hollywood through the mid-1940s in minor pictures. She frequently returned to the Nelson home base in New York, appearing with Ozzie’s band and giving birth to two children, David in 1936 and Eric (“Ricky”) in 1940.
In between films and musical gigs, the Nelsons explored radio. In the 1930s they worked on Joe Penner’s Baker’s Broadcast and supplied music and comic dialogue for cartoonist Feg Murray. In 1941 they joined Red Skelton in Los Angeles for what proved to be one of the most popular offerings on radio. When Skelton was drafted into the army in 1944, the Nelsons proposed that they star as themselves in a program of their own. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet would endure in one form or another for the next twenty-two years.
The program began its radio run with a number of comic external characters, as well as the musical interludes that had made Ozzie and Harriet Nelson famous. Within a few years, however, the humor became one of situation, and slowly the singing was phased out. Writer/director Ozzie filled in the slack with scenes featuring “cute” things done and said by the Nelson children. At first child actors played David and Ricky, but in 1949 they began to portray themselves. In 1952 the Nelsons moved to television. Their program successfully courted the American postwar family audience and stayed on the air until 1966.
The Nelsons’ stock in trade was their normality. Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky (who came to be known as Rick when he launched a highly successful singing career in the 1950s) played themselves—a white middle-class family living in a California suburb. Their fictional characters were said to be based on their actual personalities, and many of their adventures drew on true-life experiences.
Harriet Hilliard Nelson’s radio and TV character was a homebody: she later quipped, “Nobody recognizes me without an apron and a coffee pot in my hand.” She dispensed wisdom as she dispensed food. She was smarter than the character her husband played—smart enough, in the wisdom of the day, not to reveal her smartness. Her character was reactive rather than active, saving Ozzie and the boys from the situations into which ego and/or youth propelled them. She could do almost anything—but what she chose to do was cook meals, vacuum, listen to her family’s problems, and have an occasional afternoon out with the girls. The off screen Harriet Nelson was harder to define than her onscreen counterpart, but accounts during the run of the program and after it stressed her devotion to her family.
When Ozzie and Harriet finally lost the ratings battle in 1966, the parents continued to act, particularly in regional theater. They made a brief return to television in the fall of 1973 in the syndicated program Ozzie’s Girls, produced by David. Ozzie and Harriet again played themselves, renting out the rooms of their married sons to female college students. After one season, however, Ozzie Nelson contracted liver cancer and canceled production. He died in 1975.
His widow lived on for another twenty years, occasionally taking on jobs as a guest star on television. “[S]omehow,” she told one reporter, “without working, you find you don’t know who you are.” She maintained her personal privacy through her son Rick’s death in a plane crash in 1985; according to rumor she kept her family together during that difficult time. She died of heart failure, surrounded by family members, in 1994. She is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Harriet Hilliard Nelson simultaneously reinforced and challenged the domestic female stereotype of mid-twentieth-century America, working hard at her portrayal of a housewife. Later generations would both admire and rebel against the calm, well-tailored image associated with the former singer who became, as one journalist termed it, “the mother of all TV moms.”
The New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theater Collection has clipping files on the Nelsons. Information on Nelson from her radio and TV heyday may be found in her article, as told to Cameron Shipp, “My Heart Belongs to My Three Men,” Woman’s Home Companion (June 1953); in a similar piece, as told to Stanley Gordon, “The Men in My Life,” Look (11 Nov. 1958); and in Current Biography (1949). Later sources include Ozzie Nelson, Ozzie (1973); Philip Bashe, Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man (1992), a biography of Rick Nelson; and Jay Sharbutt, “Harriet’s New Life Without Ozzie,” Washington Post (23 Aug. 1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times and New York Daily News (both 4 Oct. 1992),
Tinky “Dakota” Weisblat