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The Mother of All TV Mothers


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The most resilient and long-suffering of television moms, Harriet Nelson, died on Oct. 2 at age 85 of congestive heart failure. Best known for her work on one of the gentlest of baby-boomer-era sitcoms, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66; available on video), Nelson portrayed herself, the lone female of the house, overseeing the high jinks of her husband, Ozzie, and sons David and Ricky. The oft-heard joke about the show was that cardigan-sweatered Ozzie puttered around and never seemed to go to work, but that Harriet was always working — cleaning house, making dinner, settling squabbles, and then finding time to stand in the back of the room at a sock hop and bask in the screams of teenage girls as her wickedly cute Ricky sang one of his Everly Brothers-inspired rock hits. Where TV Ozzie was scatterbrained and excitable, TV Harriet was commonsensical and calm.

Behind the scenes, Ozzie (who died in 1975) and Harriet belied their screen images. They had met in the ’30s, when Ozzie was a bandleader and Harriet Hilliard was a singer. (Her film career peaked in 1936 with a small role in the Fred Astaire musical Follow the Fleet.) And the Nelsons’ comedic family act was a joint effort — Ozzie wrote, directed, and produced, while Harriet oversaw the set design and the family’s wardrobe. Harriet Nelson was always more intelligent and ambitious than the woman she played on television, but her serene TV persona radiated a soothing grace that many of us cherish.