"The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," which began on radio in 1944 and aired on television from 1952 to 1966, is the longest-running non-animated family sitcom in TV history. The show starred the Nelson family — Oswald, Harriet and sons David and Rick as themselves.
Both Ozzie and Harriet grew up with theatrical parents. They met in New York, where Harriet was working in vaudeville and dance acts. Ozzie was attending New Jersey Law School, but the Depression prompted him to form an orchestra for a livelihood.
In 1932, Ozzie hired Harriet to be the vocalist with his popular dance band. They were an instant hit with a young Westchester, N.Y., crowd during their first engagement. There, they began doing humorous duets that Ozzie wrote, and it was not long before they became a couple off stage as well. They were married in 1935.
Harriet made several films after joining the band and Ozzie kept touring the music circuit, but in 1944 they were able to work together again in "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" on radio. Ozzie became the producer and the director of the series.
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, he gave in, calling it a "turning point" in his autobiography, because of the boys' instinctive comedic timing.
On both radio and TV, Ozzie portrayed the stubborn husband and father who tried to convince his wife that men were superior, both physically and mentally. She was the forbearing spouse who never argued but always proved him wrong, in one way or another.
Rick went from a kid with a crew cut to a singing idol. The more staid David attended law school and went into practice. When they both married in real life, their wives were brought into the show.
Latter-day critics complained that the white picket fence world of the '50s sitcoms bore no resemblance to real life, especially the interminably happy Nelson home.
"I get upset at the lack of understanding when the critics relate the show to today's families," Harriet told a writer years after Ozzie's death in 1975. "They are annoyed that we didn't deal yesterday with today's problems. I think it's silly."
In 1973, Ozzie and Harriet — their children now grown and on their own — returned to TV with a network show called "Ozzie's Girls" in which they took in two college women as boarders. But Ozzie developed liver cancer, and the show survived only one season.
"Isn't that odd for a guy who never drank or smoked?" asked Nelson when he was confronted with his malignancy. He underwent liver surgery in late 1974 and died the next June.
Harriet, who smoked cigarettes for years, battled emphysema for the last two years of her life. She died of congestive heart failure in October 1994.