She was born Peggy Louise Snyder in Des Moines, Iowa, the daughter of Hazel Dell (née McNutt) and Roy Hilliard Snyder. By 1932, she was performing in vaudeville when she met the saxophone-playing bandleader Ozzie Nelson. Nelson hired her to sing with the band, under the name Harriet Hilliard. They married three years later.
Hilliard had a respectable film career as a solo performer, apart from the band. RKO Radio Pictures signed her to a one-year contract in 1936, and she appeared in three feature films, the most famous being the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet. She was very much in demand during the World War II years for leading roles in escapist musicals, comedies, and mysteries.
In Ozzie Nelson's book, he wrote that Harriet was quite popular during the short time at RKO and they wanted her to continue her solo film career, but decided that it was more important for her to continue with the band and subsequent radio show.
Although the couple occasionally appeared together in movies, either as a duo (in Honeymoon Lodge) or as separate characters (in Hi, Good Lookin'), they are best known for their broadcasting efforts. In 1944, the Nelsons began a domestic-comedy series for radio, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was highly popular and made a successful transition to television. It was one of the stalwarts of the ABC-TV schedule through 1966. The Nelsons' two sons, Ricky and David, were featured continuously on the show. She was included in Yahoo!'s Top 10 TV Moms from Six Decades of Television for the time period 1952-1966.
In 1973, Ozzie and Harriet also appeared in the short-lived sitcom, Ozzie's Girls.
Later years and death
In 1978, Harriet Nelson moved full-time to the Laguna Beach, California beach home the family had built in 1954. She died of congestive heart failure on October 2, 1994. She is interred with her husband and younger son Ricky (who died in a plane crash) in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles.
For her contribution to the television industry, Harriet Nelson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard.