The Strange Vortex of Playboy Playmates and Family Sitcoms

There is a strange dichotomy going on between Playboy Magazine and mainstream success as an actress. What is perhaps the oddest element to this little corner of television history is how the connection between Playboy Playmates, family sitcoms and moral condemnation seems strangely out sync with the time/space continuum.

The shocking truth is that one of the first Playboy Playmates to find mainstream success as an actress did so on what is the most iconic family sitcom of all time. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” didn’t just tell the story of an American family in the 1950s; it starred an actual family playing characters who shared the real names of the actors. Of course, any similarity between the show and reality was purely coincidental. The fact that this beloved show that was the longest running sitcom in American history until “The Simpsons” eclipsed it, hired a relatively unknown actress more famous for taking off her clothes was hired to play the girlfriend of the show’s oldest son, David, still carries the ability to cause your jaw to drop.

Of course, in keeping with the premise of the show, June Blair was hired to play David Nelson’s future wife on the show because she happened to be the young woman who would become David Nelson’s future wife in real life. The fact that she also happened to be Playboy Playmate of the Month for January 1957 was just, probably, an unfortunate coincidence. You’ve got to give Ozzie Nelson credit for having the guts to stick by his family. You know at some point there must have been serious pressure put on Oz to just say no to hiring a woman of such loose morals. Or so it would have been thought at the time by advertisers and studio execs scare witless of offending consumers.

It goes without saying that such a view had become outdated almost thirty years later and so it would be ridiculous to assume any pressure would arise if the situation played out again.

Playboy Magazine had become a media institution and its version of adult entertainment was almost quaint by the late 1980s. If millions of viewers had no problem with a nude model playing the wife of a TV character they had literally watched grow up before their eyes in 1961, then surely it could not possibly become an issue in the Age of Madonna.

Ah, if only Julie McCullough had married Kirk Cameron. Or at least interfered with his conversion to evangelical Christianity. McCullough went from being naked on the pages of Playboy Magazine in 1986 to a plum role on the one of the most popular family sitcoms of the 1980s despite a severely limited amount of acting experience. The syrupy sweetness of “Growing Pains” seemed even more at odds with the addition of a Playmate than the much more offbeat and even occasionally surreal “Ozzie and Harriet.” Still, when June Blair first appeared on “Ozzie and Harriet” the Beatles were unknown outside Europe, “Psycho” would have been an R-rated movie if there had been such a thing and Barbara Eden was about to be forbidden from showing her belly button on “I Dream of Jeannie.”

The time/space continuum separating the family values of 1961 from the family values of 1989 appears to have a dimensional hiccup in it when it comes to the issue of Playboy Playmates and family sitcoms. The real story of how McCullough’s stay on the show turned out to be lost for just ten episodes and why her exit was so abrupt depends entirely on the perspective of the person telling it. McCullough’s version indicates that Cameron’s deepening involvement in fundamental Christianity placed his moral stance squarely at odds with her modeling past. The alternative explanation from the producers of “Growing Pains” insists that McCullough was from the start only going to be a temporary addition and that her brief tenure was unrelated to any moral misgivings.

Regardless of the details, the result produced one of the strangest truths in American TV history: it was more acceptable for a Playboy Playmate to appear on an early 1960s family sitcom than on a 1980s sitcom.