Vintage Hunk: Ricky Nelson

By: Mike McCrann

"Perhaps the most embarrassing moment in my career was when six girls tried to fling themselves under my car, and shouted to me to run over them. That sort of thing can be very frightening." Ricky Nelson - 1960

Ricky Nelson was arguably the most famous teenager of television sitcoms during the 50s and 60s. Unlike most of the other actors his age, Nelson also had a very successful singing career and was also part of the cinema masterpiece Rio Bravo.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harrietwas a huge success as both a radio show and a TV sitcom. Starring bandleader Ozzie Nelson and former vocalist Harriet Hilliard - the Nelsons were the perfect show for the bland white bread Eisenhower years.

Ozzie and Harriet had two sons David and Rickey. 12 year old Dave and 8 year old Ricky joined their parents’ radio show in 1949. In 1952 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet moved to television and the show lasted in prime time until the fall of 1966.

Ozzie and Harriet was a fairly amusing show with both parents in the Father Knows Best mold. However, no one ever knew exactly what Ozzie did for a living. He and Harriet were always home. Harriet Nelson was attractive and quietly amusing and little by little Dave and Rickey became the vocal points of the show with David Nelson being the more handsome of the two boys. Neverthless, teenage girls singled Rickey Nelson out as the show's star.

In 1957 Nelson made his rock and roll singing debut with a cover of the Fats Domino hit “I'm Walking.” This led to several more pop hits and suddenly Rickey Nelson was a singing star.

Looking a bit like a thinner more educated Elvis Presley, Rickey Nelson was cute and quite amusing on Ozzie and Harriet. Nelson's big movie break came in 1959 when legendary director Howard Hawks picked Nelson to co-star in his landmark western Rio Bravo with superstars John Wayne and Dean Martin and a lovely young Angie Dickinson. Ricky Nelson did very well in the film and it was a huge hit. However, his subsequent films were mediocre and his film career quickly fizzled.

Rickey Nelson's singing career remained strong as he moved from teenager to young man. In 1963 Nelson married Kris Harmon. They had four children including Gunnar and Matthew who became famous with their own band years later. This marriage ended in an ugly divorce and Nelson was linked to a number of women in the following years, as well as stories of drug abuse.

Rickey Nelson continued to travel with his band and on New Year's Eve 1985 the private plane he was on heading for a Dallas concert crashed and burned. Of the 9 people on board 7 were killed including Rickey Nelson and his girlfriend at the time.

Ricky Nelson may not have been a great actor or singer, but he certainly is one of the most prominent stars of his era. Less dangerous than Elvis, more white bread than Frankie Avalon or Fabian, Ricky Nelson was the epitome of the typical male teenager of mid-century American life.