Appreciation: David Nelson, 1936-2011
David Nelson, the last of the Ozzie-and-Harriet Nelsons, has died. On the deceptive face of it, David, who passed away Tuesday at age 74, was the least colorful member of the first family of situation comedy: One would say, within the context of the show, that he was his mother's son -- practical, serious, down-to-earth -- as goofy, dreamy, pop star Ricky was his father's. Eventually, he became a director of the series, as Ozzie had been before him, suggesting that he was his father's son in fact, and he later produced the spinoff "Ozzie's Girls," in which the room he had once shared with his brother was rented to a couple of what were then called coeds.
TV's "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" succeeded a radio show of the same name, where David and Ricky first took on the job of playing versions of themselves. (They were preceded in that role by "professional actors.") That the Nelsons of the air were also the Nelsons of the real world was crucial to the show's fanciful naturalism -- its throwaway genius -- giving the scripts' most eccentric turns an air of the everyday. "Ozzie and Harriet" is sometimes mistakenly considered an icon of idealized postwar normalcy, but the family was stranger and more singular than that. (See the clip below, in which they take on "Hamlet.")
It's easy to underestimate David's contribution to this comedy, but, just as there is no Beatles without George (or Ringo, if you prefer), he was essential to the music the Nelsons made. (More than any TV family before or since, this was a congregation of equals.) His easy and natural way with a line, if it did not portend a flourishing career in the dramatic arts, was perfectly tuned to the pitch of the parallel reality in which he lived, on radio and television, for nearly two decades. And however the "self" David played accorded or did not accord with the person he was offscreen, he inhabited the character with aplomb. It's worth pointing out, too, that although kid brother Ricky was cast as the comedian -- in the opening credits, David was described simply as "the older of the Nelson Boys," while Ricky was "irrepressible" -- David was not a straight man: He had his share of laugh lines embedded into the banter.
It's a question of balance and of teamwork. For the 1959 movie "The Big Circus," one of his rare non-"Ozzie and Harriet" roles, Nelson trained as a trapeze artist, a new skill that inevitably found its way into the sitcom (and several editions of "Circus of the Stars"). Significantly, he was a catcher.
Photo: (from top) David, Harriet, Ozzie and Ricky Nelson. Credit: ABC.