Proving She's No Square Peg, Ozzie and Harriet's Granddaughter Tracy Nelson Takes to the Tube
Don't even think of suggesting that she use words like barf out, bitchen and grody. "I am tired of being called a Valley Girl," pouts Tracy Nelson, 19, of her role in Square Pegs, the new punk-age sitcom on CBS. Fer sure, her character—Jennifer DeNuccio, the worldly-wise envy of the misfits in her class at Weemawee High School—sounds like a spin-off from Moon Unit Zappa's record. In fact, she's modeled on an old Saturday Night Live creation. And far from living down in Zappa's San Fernando Valley, what Tracy calls home is the former Errol Flynn mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
Moreover, the proprietor is singer-actor Rick Nelson, which makes daughter Tracy the newest performing member of a notable family. On one side it includes not only her dad, now 42 and touring with his Stone Canyon Band, but also her grandparents, the sitcom pioneers Harriet Nelson and her late husband, Ozzie. On the other side are her maternal grandparents, football great Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, star of The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi and other '40s films. They are the parents of Tracy's artist mom, Kris. Then, too, Tracy's uncle David Nelson directed the 1981 film Carnauba. "I'm so proud of them all," says Tracy of her kin, adding that she's had "no pressure to live up to them."
But she's endured pressures of another sort. Her parents' 1963 marriage seemed one for the storybooks, but Kris and Rick have separated twice and are divorcing; their split will become final within the next two months. Tracy chose to stay with her dad. Her 15-year-old twin brothers, Gunnar and Matthew, live with Kris, and 8-year-old Sam Nelson lives with grandma Elyse. But Tracy, at least, is philosophical about her parents: "They were too young when they decided to have a family. I think they are only now learning how to parent."
Tracy's childhood was lonely. She started dancing at 4 and painting at 5. At 6, she sought attention by dressing up as a mermaid every day for a week. At L.A.'s Westlake School for Girls she threw herself into ballet (she still takes lessons; the plates on her Honda Civic read TOE SHUS). But "acting was always something I knew I would do," Tracy says, and as a teen she spent summers at a drama workshop in England, paying her way in part with money she made hostessing at a Burbank coffee shop at 13. "I lied about my age," she explains. Though she wears a padded bra on Square Pegs, Tracy is proud to say, "I've always been able to appear older than I am."
And younger. She was a freshman at Manhattan's Barnard College last year when the Square Pegs producers cast her as the 15-year-old Jennifer. She won the role by aping her classmates at Westlake. Tracy, says the show's creator, Anne Beatts, successfully portrayed Jennifer "as a self-centered person who is unaware of anything going on outside her little world."
Tracy "did it all by herself," says her proud mom. And now that she's earning a reported $3,000 per episode, she's determined not to lose perspective. Arriving home at 10 p.m. or so after a day of taping, she plunges into her painting and her poetry. With no boyfriends now, just a crush on Prince Andrew, all her allegiance goes to her family. "My dad is a sensitive, private, shy man," she says, pointing out how characteristically cool Rick was when she landed her Square Pegs role. He took her to a movie and dinner. But otherwise, Tracy remembers, "All he said was, 'Good. Now do a good job.' That was exactly right. One thing our family knows is you have to put your ego on the shelf. Acting is a job." Fer sure.
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