The eagle hanging over the living room fireplace on the set of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet wasn’t a typical TV prop. It was a duplicate of the one that decorated the fireplace of the Nelson family’s real house in a gated community near Runyon Canyon in L.A. “Each day, they’d roll out of bed and go ‘home’ to work,” Gunnar Nelson, one of Ricky Nelson’s sons, tells Closer. “It had to have been surreal.” 

From 1952 to 1966, Ricky, his older brother, David, and their parents, Ozzie and Harriet, remained America’s first family. “That’s what made the show work — a real family playing a real family on television,” Gunnar says. But what audiences saw on screen was still fiction, and being expected to live up to the perfection of their TV images left the Nelson boys with little room to grow, make mistakes or find their true selves. 

Ricky Nelson’s ‘Difficult’ Career: How He Balanced Acting and Singing
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Unlike his befuddled TV role, Ozzie was a savvy showbiz veteran who had earned a law degree but never practiced after his big band found success in the 1930s. The creator, producer, director and star of Ozzie and Harriet had his hand in every aspect of the series — including creating his sons’ on-screen personalities. 

“It’s just fascinating. What father doesn’t want to write the script for his children?” asks Joel Selvin, author of Ricky Nelson: Idol for a Generation. From the moment they joined the family business, at ages 8 and 12, Ricky and David were made aware of their responsibilities — especially after their TV series premiered. “The network had a morals clause, meaning that all their behavior, both on and off the set, was under constant scrutiny,” Gunnar explains. “Ozzie reminded them that 45 people — including their own parents — would be out of work if the boys acted like typical teenaged idiots.”

It’s no surprise that Ricky’s youthful rebellion was a quiet one. “He became passively hostile,” says Selvin. “He would oversleep and not show up on the set. They would send a car for him and bring him in, but he would tear up his script and hide it.” 

Music and his classes at Hollywood High, where Ricky excelled at tennis, should have allowed him to enjoy a degree of autonomy, but Ozzie was quick to add his sons’ real-life interests to scripts. In the first season, Ricky awkwardly performed Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” in an episode called “Ricky, the Drummer.” 

The viewers loved it. In 1958, his single “Poor Little Fool,” off his second album, became Ricky’s first No. 1 hit. He was 16 when Life magazine declared him a “teen idol.” “From that moment on, reality diverged from the story lines on the set,” Gunnar explains. “Pop would leave on the weekends to tour and do shows, and then go back to the set in L.A. on Monday and put ‘the sweater’ back on again. That must have been difficult for him.” 

Still, Ricky’s life was never his own. After he wed 17-year-old Kristin Harmon in 1963, she became a new cast member on the show. The daughter of football legend Tom Harmon (and older sister of NCISMark Harmon), Kristin played Ricky’s wife.

Ricky Nelson’s ‘Difficult’ Career: How He Balanced Acting and Singing

Despite his craving for independence, Ricky felt lost when The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet went off the air in 1966. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have to worry about money or a job, but I didn’t have any real interest in a career,” he confessed. Ricky eventually returned to music and adopted a more mature country-rock sound. In 1972, he scored his last big hit, “Garden Party.” 

Three years later, Ozzie died at 68 from liver cancer. After so many years of his control and input into their lives, the Nelsons found themselves floundering. “He was true north — the glue that held the dynasty together,” Gunnar says. “Everything fell apart.” 

Ricky’s troubled marriage erupted in a tabloid-ready blaze of accusations of alcoholism, drug abuse, financial recklessness and bad parenting. “We were totally messed up, both of us,” admitted Kris. 

Things got ugly — and more surreal — before the ink dried on their divorce. “When Rick was out on tour, Kris backed up a moving van and just took all the furniture,” says Selvin. Harriet, who became reclusive after Ozzie’s death, gifted her financially strapped son with a lamp that Christmas. “Keep in mind that Harriet was financially set,” says Selvin. “But she found the $35 to buy a nice lamp for her son when he’s down and out.” 

Despite these hard knocks, Ricky continued to find his purpose in making music. “It’s a tribute to his dedication to his musical career because there was nobody advising him to continue,” explains Selvin, who believes Ricky was on the right track “getting back into fundamental rock and roll” when he died at age 45 in a plane crash with his new fiancée, Helen Blair, and five members of his band in 1985. 

“There isn’t a day they goes by that I don’t feel deeply honored to share my father’s incredible legacy,” says Gunnar, who with his twin brother, Matthew, paid tribute to his father’s music with the multimedia show Ricky Nelson Remembered in 2020. “In the end, he literally lived and died for rock ’n’ roll. It’s important not to forget that. He was the real deal.”

 — Reporting by Fortune Benatar

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.