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David Nelson of TV sitcom family dies

LOS ANGELES -- David Nelson, the elder son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and the last surviving member of the family that became an American institution in the 1950s and 1960s as the stars of the classic TV sitcom "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," died Tuesday. He was 74.

Nelson died in his Century City home of complications from colon cancer, said publicist Dale Olson.

"The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" began on radio in 1944, as a day in the home life of bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his vocalist wife, Harriet Hilliard.

In 1949, the popular show became a true family affair when 12-year-old David and 8-year-old Ricky replaced the child actors who had been portraying them on radio.

"The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" moved to television three years later, debuting on ABC in October 1952.

When the series ended in 1966 after 435 episodes, it had become the longest-running family situation comedy in TV history -- as well as serving as the launchpad and showcase for teen idol Rick Nelson's singing career.

In the process of playing fictionalized versions of themselves on television each week for 14 years, David and Rick Nelson literally grew up in front of millions of Americans.

After David and Rick were married in the early 1960s, their wives -- first David's wife, actress June Blair, and then Rick's wife, the former Kris Harmon -- became their TV wives.

The blurring of what was real and what was not caused confusion in some viewers' minds.

When David enrolled at the University of Southern California and joined a fraternity after graduating from Hollywood High School in 1954, his TV character started college and joined a fraternity.

But unlike his TV character, who became a lawyer on the show, David did not go into law.

Instead, he launched his career as a director by taking the reins from his director-father for about a dozen episodes of the show in the early 1960s. He spent the next several decades directing commercials and occasional TV series and movies.

"The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" has been criticized for presenting an idealized version of American family life that few could live up to.

That included the Nelsons, as David pointed out in a 1971 Esquire article headlined "The Happy, Happy, Happy Nelsons."

"We would keep up the front of this totally problem-less, happy-go-lucky group," he said. "There might have been a tremendous battle in our home, but if someone from outside came in, it would be as if the director yelled, 'Roll 'em.' We'd fall right into our stage roles.

"It's an awfully big load to carry, to be everyone's fantasy family."

He was born Oct. 24, 1936, in New York City, when Ozzie and Harriet were in their big-band heyday. Rick was born in 1940, the year before the Nelsons moved to Hollywood.

David and Ricky joined the cast of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" in February 1949. Within six months, Radio Life magazine dubbed them "The Crown Princes of Radio."

From the start, Ricky was given most of the funny lines and, as a result, he received most of the attention.

But there wasn't really any rivalry between him and his younger brother, David Nelson said in a 1987 interview.

"We were 3 1/2 years apart," he said. "So when Rick was funny, I laughed with everyone else. And when he became a popular singer, I rooted for him."

David and Rick made their movie debuts in the 1952 comedy "Here Come the Nelsons."

During the 1950s and early 1960s, David Nelson also had roles in the movies "Peyton Place," "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker," "The Big Circus," "Day of the Outlaw," "30" and "The Big Show."

Ozzie Nelson died of liver cancer in 1975. Rick Nelson died with six others in a plane crash on New Year's Eve 1985. And in 1994, Harriet Nelson died of congestive heart failure.

David Nelson is survived by his wife, Yvonne; sons John, Eric, James and Danny; daughter Teri; and seven grandchildren. His marriage to June Blair ended in divorce in 1975.

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