Born in Iowa in 1909, Harriet Nelson became one of television's best-loved characters in the 1950s, playing a housewife and mom on the hit series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Her husband and sons on the show were her real-life husband and children.
Actress and singer Harriet Nelson was born Peggy Lou Snyder on July 18, 1909, in Des Moines, Iowa. While she used the stage name Harriet Hilliard for a number of years, she is best known as Harriet Nelson, one of television's most legendary mothers.
Born into a theatrical family, she got her start at an early age. Nelson spent years on the road, touring on the vaudeville circuit. In the early 1930s, she performed at nightclubs in New York City and had a part in a short film entitled The Campus Mystery (1932). Around this time, she joined Ozzie Nelson as a singer in his band, and the two later became a couple off stage. They married in 1935.
'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet'
In the late 1930s and 1940s, Nelson appeared in several films as Harriet Hilliard, including the musical comedies Follow the Fleet (1936) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Cocoanut Grove (1938) with Fred MacMurray. She found greater success, however, pairing up with her husband. They appeared together on comedian Red Skelton's radio show in the early 1940s before launching their own hit radio show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, in 1944. The content for their program was drawn from their experiences as a couple raising two young sons, David and Eric—who was nicknamed Ricky, later known as the teen idol Rick Nelson.
The show made the move to television in the early 1950s, and Nelson emerged as the quintessial 1950s wife, mother and homemaker. By the time it was on television, her real-life sons played themselves on the series, making the program a true family affair. On the air for 14 years, the show focused on the day-to-day issues of parenting and being a teenager. It also provided a platform for their son Ricky to launch his musical career; he emerged as a popular teen idol and singer. During the course of its run, the boys grew up, went to college and got married.
Later Years and Death
The couple tried to recapture some of its earlier magic in 1973 with the short-lived series Ozzie's Girls. The premise of the show—Ozzie and Harriet renting out their sons' rooms to two young female college students—failed to attract an audience. Not long after, Harriet lost her great love when Ozzie died in 1975. She suffered another personal loss when her son Ricky died in a plane crash in 1985. Mostly withdrawn from public life, Nelson made a few guest appearances over the years. Her last was with her granddaughter Tracy Nelson, Rick Nelson's daughter, on the Father Dowling Mysteries series in 1989.
Her later years were marked by ill health. After a fall, she struggled with back pain and had emphysema. Harriet Nelson died of congestive heart failure on October 2, 1994, in Laguna Beach, California.
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