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TV’s Harriet Nelson Dies at Laguna Home : Obituary: Son David ‘was holding her hand,’ as she passed away, daughter-in-law says.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Harriet Nelson, whose transition from Ozzie Nelson’s band singer to his wife and then mother of their two sons transformed her into the matriarch of one of television’s most wholesome and beloved families, has died. She was 85.

Mrs. Nelson died of congestive heart failure Sunday afternoon in her Laguna Beach home with her son, David, and his wife, Yvonne, at her bedside.

“David was holding her hand,” her daughter-in-law said. “She fell asleep and passed away peacefully.”

The demure and highly respected Mrs. Nelson, once America’s favorite housewife, had lived in quiet retirement for many years. She had remained generally out of public view since her husband’s death from cancer in 1975 and the 1986 air crash that claimed her other son, Rick, a popular rock ‘n’ roll performer long after “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” went off the air. Her rare public appearances late in life could force some comedians to clean up their tawdry material out of respect.

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Mrs. Nelson had been admitted to South Coast Medical Center in Laguna Beach in late August suffering from congestive heart failure and had long battled emphysema. Unknown to her many fans, she had smoked cigarettes for years. She was released from the hospital Friday at her request, after her condition was reported stabilized.

Asked last month if she were in good spirits, her son David replied: “She hasn’t been in good spirits since Dad died.”

With Ozzie as the helpful, willing but sometimes befuddled husband and Harriet as his knowing, soft-spoken spouse who never strayed far from the kitchen, the Nelsons became a weekly symbol of a simpler, gentler America.

“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” which began on radio in 1944 and aired on television from 1952 to 1966, is the longest-running family sitcom in TV history. In the process of producing 435 episodes, the Nelsons became an American institution.

Mrs. Nelson set an example of “honesty, warmth, goodness and understanding,” said Grace Boyd of Dana Point, widow of actor and entertainer William Boyd or “Hopalong Cassidy” and a friend of Harriet’s for 60 years.

“It wasn’t just a part she was playing. It was real. I don’t know of anybody who didn’t love her.”

Boyd said she met Mrs. Nelson in New York City in the 1930s when Mrs. Nelson was a successful singer at the Hollywood Restaurant, one of Manhattan’s top nightclubs, and Boyd worked as a dancer at the Paradise Club.

“I think her biggest contribution was just being Harriet,” she said. “She and Ozzie were an example to everybody. It was a total commitment that people don’t want to do too much of now.”

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Former dancer Buddy Ebsen of Palos Verdes once performed in Detroit to the music of Ozzie Nelson’s orchestra and later played the part of Mrs. Nelson’s husband in a television feature.

Ebsen said she and Ozzie showed what an American family could be.

“Family values--it’s what everyone is looking for today, and what we don’t have enough of.” In a New Yorker cartoon from the 1960s, a middle-aged couple is shown watching television when the wife tells the husband: “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll try to be more like Harriet if you try to be more like Ozzie.”

Two decades after the show was canceled, people would still approach Harriet and say, “Aren’t you Ozzie and Harriet?” She would always laugh and say, “Well, I’m one of them.”

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Comedian and talk show host Joey Bishop, who crossed paths with the Nelsons at Beverly Hills parties in the late ‘50s, said one of the most striking things about Harriet was her unaffectedness.

“She was very successful, a big star, but there was absolutely nothing phony about her,” said Bishop of Newport Beach. “She was so real.”

Actor Jack Wagner of Anaheim played Jack, the malt-shop proprietor, on the show with the Nelsons for 14 years. Wagner called her “a total professional at all times.”

“She was always very sweet and she always knew her lines.”

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Harriet Hilliard, born Harriet Louise Snyder in Des Moines, Iowa, was the daughter of theatrical parents who plied the Midwestern theater circuit. She made her theater debut at the age of 6 weeks when her mother carried her on stage in “Heir to the Horrah” and had her first speaking role when she was 3.

Following her mother to New York after her parents separated, Harriet quit high school three months shy of graduating to join the Corps de Ballet at the Capitol Theater on Broadway. In 1927, when she was 17, she was hired by vaudeville comic Ken Murray to be his straight woman. For the next year, she worked with Murray and danced in the Harry Carroll Revue, the first vaudeville unit to go out on the Radio Keith Orpheum circuit, playing two shows a day. She later worked as straight woman for comedian Bert Lahr and played the Palace Theater four times.

In 1931, Harriet was hired to do a specialty dance act at the Hollywood Restaurant, one of Manhattan’s top nightclubs. She was soon serving as mistress of ceremonies and working in production numbers at the club.

A year later, Ozzie Nelson hired her to be the vocalist with his popular dance band. They were an instant hit with the young Westchester, N.Y., crowd during their first engagement at the famed Glen Island Casino. There, they began doing humorous duets, which Ozzie wrote, and it was not long before they became a couple off stage as well as on. They were married in 1935.

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Harriet made her motion picture debut in “Follow the Fleet” with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in 1936. Although she appeared in several other pictures over the next few years, her priority was being with Ozzie and starting a family.

Having grown up in show business, she once said, “I know there’s one thing that’s important and that’s your family.”

In a business notorious for its divorce rates, the Nelsons’ successful marriage was something of a riddle, Boyd said.

“To see people stay married was unique,” Boyd said. “And to see them stay married under those circumstances where they work together and live together and they’re never separated was especially so. . . . It worked because they both had good heads on them and because there was never any question that they were going to be together.”

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Both Ozzie and Harriet achieved their greatest early success on radio, beginning with their regular appearances on comic Joe Penner’s “Baker’s Broadcast” out of New York in the early 1930s. In the early ‘40s, Ozzie, Harriet and the band joined Red Skelton’s new radio show in Hollywood. Harriet sang on the show and worked with Skelton in comedy sketches. She played Daisy June opposite Red’s Klem Kadiddlehopper, Calamity Jane opposite his Dead-Eye and the mother of Junior, “the mean widdle kid.”

When Skelton was drafted into the Army in 1944, the Nelsons began their own radio show. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” began as a day in the life of bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his vocalist wife, Harriet Hilliard.

Originally, the radio series featured child actors because the patriarch said he “didn’t want any inflated egos at the dinner table.” But in 1949, Ozzie--who wrote much of their material himself--gave in and with Harriet’s blessings let the boys portray themselves, which they continued to do on TV.

Many reflected that the only things that really changed when the Nelsons switched mediums were the voices of Dave and Rick.

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On both radio and television, Ozzie portrayed the stubborn husband and father who tried to persuade his wife that men were superior by nature, both physically and mentally. She was the forbearing spouse who never argued but always proved him wrong, in one way or another.

Unlike the radio Nelsons, their TV counterparts increasingly became embroiled in the growing pains of the two boys. Rick went from a kid with a crew-cut to a singing idol. The more staid David attended law school and went into practice. And when they both married in real life, their wives were brought into the show.

The closeness that Americans sensed from their favorite TV family was not coincidental. The Nelsons themselves were described as a tightknit, loving bunch who never let their show business success cripple their home life.

Harriet Nelson liked to tell of the time her then teen-age grandson, Sam, once the subject of a bitter custody battle between Rick Nelson’s in-laws and Rick’s widow, Kris, told her, “Grandma, this (the Laguna property) is the nicest house in the world.”

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Later her granddaughter, actress Tracy Nelson, explained to her what her brother had meant:

“You’re a constant to us,” she said. “No matter what comes and goes, you’re always here.”

In 1973, Ozzie and Harriet--their children now grown and on their own--returned to TV with a syndicated series called “Ozzie’s Girls” in which they took in two college women as boarders. David Nelson produced the half-hour series but Ozzie became ill and it survived only one season.

There was a memento of sorts that remained from the show, however. It was a framed photo of the Nelsons, taken shortly before they married in 1935. The picture rested atop an antique oak table in the Laguna Beach home where Harriet Nelson sought solace after her husband’s death.

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The frame was engraved: “Ozzie’s Girl.”

During her years in Laguna Beach, Mrs. Nelson became a supporter of the South Coast Medical Center and the Laguna Playhouse.

“She was such a wonderful woman,” said former playhouse executive director Douglas Rowe of Laguna Beach.

“She would come and see the shows and then she’d send us flowers.”

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Mrs. Nelson is survived by her son, David, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. At her request, a private memorial service will be held.

Folkart reported from Los Angeles and McLellan from Orange County. Times staff writer Susan Marquez Owen contributed to this report.


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