May 31, 2018
It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.
I hope this finds all of you doing well and enjoying life as the “Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer” (Nat “King” Cole, 1963!) draw near.
(Of course, down under here comes winter!)
Yippee!!! I’ve been trying to think of an excuse to break away from working on the up-coming book and get in touch, when one just sort of dropped in my lap.
I suddenly remembered a couple of weeks ago, that May 8th was Ricky Nelson’s birthday.
He would have been 78, which is really difficult for me to imagine, since Ricky always maintained a somewhat childlike attitude towards life.
Not surprising, since he was indulged from an early age.
As a kid, he had only to wish aloud for a guitar or a drum set and one was immediately delivered.
When music became his primary passion, it would ultimately transform a precocious, wise-cracking child TV actor into a full blown Rock and Roll superstar, featured on the cover of LIFE magazine with a caption the editors created specifically for him… “Ricky Nelson Teen Idol.” (I was with him the day it hit the newsstands. We ran out and bought a copy for every crew member on the set.)
Rick was eventually –and rightfully - inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, a little more than a year after we lost him, far too soon, at age 45...
He was on tour making music when his plane went down in Texas on New Year’s Eve…a classic rock and roll tragedy.
But, from our teens on, Ricky Nelson and I had plenty of good times and lots of laughs.
And that’s what I choose to remember.
In fact, of all the famous people I’ve been lucky enough to share adventures with, few have provided more amazing, and sometimes amusing moments than Rick… when we were classmates at Hollywood High, when he and the Preps toured to packed arenas around the country, and when I filmed “Ozzie and Harriet” with him for four seasons.
All my countless hours with Rick and the whole Nelson family in their home, and at the studio, are covered in intimate detail in “My Adventures with the “ICONS,IDOLS and IDIOTS of Show Business”… three full chapters. (Maybe four by the time I’m finished.)
Eric Hilliard Nelson was innately shy, but grew up as a child celebrity in an isolated kind of bubble that fostered his innocently blunt way of expressing himself.
It was never mean-spirited, but totally lacking tact or restraint.
I still recall some of his more pointed wise cracks, so, in honor of his 78th, how about a few firsthand remembrances of his wittier moments.
Here’s an excerpt from the book with a couple of his more memorable quips...
TITLE: “Ozzie twitches, Ricky quips, and Bruce pirouettes”
By now, Ricky has developed a surprisingly barbed sense of humor, a lot like Harriet, who could laugh at—and sometimes tell—an irreverent joke as well as anyone.
Three examples of “Rickwit”...
I find him on the set one Monday morning totally pissed at the Father of the girl he had taken out on Saturday night.
She had a 12:00 curfew and Ricky had gotten her home at 12:17.
Her furious old man tore into Ricky who is now really steamed about it.
“Geez,” he grumbles, “you’d think he’d be honored!”
That’s really not an egomaniac talking. He’s simply grown up knowing what he and his family represent and is used to being treated with a certain degree of deference.
(And I suspect, he is already beginning to sense that he’s a superstar in the making.)
Here’s another of his quips...
About my third season on the show, I start to develop a dreaded bald spot on the back of my head.
I’m self-conscious as hell about it, so just before I go on camera, our makeup man, Monty Westmore, begins hiding it with a little beige-tinted makeup spray.
One day, we shoot a scene with a bevy of beautiful actresses who, of course, I’m trying to impress.
I’m seated for the scene, with Ricky and a few of the girls standing behind me.
He looks down, spots the spray make up and wise-cracks for all the lovelies to hear, “Hey Bruce, what’d you do—fall asleep under an exhaust pipe?!”
Not exactly a confidence builder for yours truly.
Another recollection of Rick’s sometimes withering talent for ridicule...
Ozzie exhibits a whole assortment of facial tics and twitches when he isn’t on camera.
He’ll stand and address us regarding the next scene and blink twice, then twitch, then wiggle his nose, blink again and twitch some more.
Each time he finishes his directions and turns to head back behind the camera, Ricky steps around in front of us and mimes an absolutely uncanny replication of every single tic and twitch Ozzie just showed us.
And this is Ricky Nelson—usually the deadest dead pan around.
Of course, when we crack up, Ozzie turns around quizzically, but never catches on to Rick’s pantomime.
One more example of Rick’s sometimes tactless way of expressing himself...
Wally Cox, who has become famous on television as the loveable Mr. Peepers, is our guest star.
Wally turns out to be a surprising contradiction.
He wears glasses, is slight, meek, and soft spoken, but at the same time, a buffed and very athletic guy.
One day, a bunch of us are walking up the street to a local grill for lunch, when Wally suddenly trots over to a metal pole holding a street sign, leaps up and grabs it about four feet off the ground.
He then very slowly raises his body straight outward until it’s perfectly perpendicular to the pole.
It’s an advanced gymnast’s maneuver called the “The Flag”—which happens to be one of the most difficult in all of gymnastics.
“Mr. Peepers” holds it for what seems like a full minute while we all stare in admiring disbelief.
When Cox finally dismounts, Ricky walks over, slaps him on the back and deadpans: “Geez Wally! All this time I thought you were just a skinny little sissy!”
We all wince as Wally cocks his head and murmurs, “Thanks Rick…… I think.”
(End of excerpt.)
Hmmm—life keeps throwing me all kinds of ironic jolts as I get older.
Here we go again.
Just as I’m about to share this Ricky Nelson piece with you, a friend phones to tell me that a little over a week earlier, Kris Nelson, Rick’s former wife, had passed away at age 73… ironically 12 days before the birthday of the Father of her children.
Gosh, how well I remember when Kris first walked on the set to assume her role on the show (and in real life) as Rick’s new wife.
“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” is an American Institution by now and she’s got some big shoes to fill as the chosen wife of Prince Charming the Rock Star.
Like Ricky, Kris comes from a celebrated family and is definitely up to the challenge.
Her Father, Tom Harmon, was an All American, Heisman trophy winner and decorated WWII fighter pilot, who became a renowned sportscaster after the war.
Kris’s Mother was Elyse Knox, a stunning blonde model, fashion designer and actress who played the girlfriend of “Joe Palooka” in the film series of that name based on the popular comic strip.
(Elyse created her wedding gown from the silk parachute Tom used to bail out of his burning plane in one of his two near-fatal close calls in combat.)
Kris’s sister Kelly, a gorgeous model and actress, will go on to marry John DeLorean.
And her brother Mark is a All American quarterback who graduates cum laude from UCLA before becoming an established TV star.
Kris had studied ballet since early childhood and Ozzie puts together an episode entitled “Ballerina” in which Kris tries to teach us “left-footed” fraternity goof-offs some rudimentary ballet moves for a comedic dance routine we’re to perform at a charity fundraiser to be given by Harriet’s women’s club.
I’d heard all about her and finally… here she is.
Kris is lovely, poised, and—thank God—patient as we klutzes try to execute a few basic steps.
You’ve heard a lousy dancer described as having “two left feet.”
I remember feeling as if I had three or four, while Kris did her best to instruct me.
So, I rummaged through my memorabilia and managed to locate a video of that episode.
If you click on the URL below, you’ll see me trying my best to follow Kris’s gentle instructions.
I’m the second klutz from the left, and by the way, none of my screw ups here were planned.
Then comes some footage of me in my loveliest ballet drag.
Other than Ricky, I am the only blonde “ballerina” in the bunch and wearing a divine tiara made of white paper. (No expense was spared.)
Perhaps you’ll notice my artistic growth as the lessons progress… perhaps not.
You will definitely observe that I am the ugliest drag queen you’ve ever seen.
Hey—I may be ugly, but at least I’m clumsy.
It was all such silly, innocent fun as America discovered yet another Nelson to love… Rick’s luminous new bride.
Take a look and then we’ll wrap this up...
See Bruce's Memorable Moments with Ricky Nelson
Kris and Rick will have four spectacular children then sadly, divorce in 1982.
She will go on to deal with some painful family issues and ultimately re-locate to New Mexico where she achieves notable success as a primitive painter of naive art, one of her pieces hanging in Jackie Kennedy’s home.
But my fondest memory of her is as a shy new bride who graced our sound stage with her demure presence and demonstrated what true class is all about.
Rest in peace, dear ballerina.
That’s it for now.
No wait… before I go, let me update you on my book and plans for its debut.
I’m aiming for a December release (a great Christmas gift for Oldies and Pop Culture history fans!) and will be doing a series of book signings around So Cal and, hopefully throughout the country.
I also plan to record an audio version as well by year’s end.
So, stand by, KEEP IN TOUCH and take good care of yourself and each other.
P.S. Let me hear from you. Love your responses.