In the 1950s and ’60s the Nelsons were one of the most popular families on television, but on Tuesday the last surviving castmember of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” David Nelson, died at the age of 74. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Nelson passed away in his Century City, California, home after battling complications from colon cancer.
In an age before reality TV, Nelson was one of the first true reality stars. Appearing alongside his actual family in the long-running sitcom that starred his parents, Ozzie and Harriet, and younger brother and future music/film star Ricky, David Nelson got his start on the radio in 1949 with the original incarnation of the sitcom, which his parents had launched five years earlier.
The show made the transition to television in 1952, beginning a quirky run as a program that Time.com described as blurring “the line between fact and fiction.” At one point during the series’ time on the air, David and Ricky’s actual wives were brought on to play their fictional spouses. In another twist, David’s character was sent off to college and joined a fraternity at the same time he did those things in real life. And, as he would for most of his younger brother’s life, David played something of a second banana to Ricky on the program, letting him have the best laugh lines and contenting himself with being a part of the family ensemble.
If anything, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” has been lampooned and criticized over the years for depicting a family that was almost too perfect, creating a suburban ideal that few families, even the Nelson’s themselves, could ever hope to achieve.
David Nelson appeared in a string of films during the show’s heyday, including “Peyton Place,” “The Big Circus” and “Day of the Outlaw,” and continued to act sporadically when “Ozzie and Harriet” ended its record TV run in 1966. He was last seen on the big screen playing the father of Traci Lords’ character, Wanda, in director John Waters’ 1950s spoof film “Cry-Baby” in 1990.
Surviving David are his wife, five children and seven grandkids. Brother Ricky died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1985.