‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ star Howard Hesseman dies at 81

NEW YORK – Howard Hesseman, who plays radio disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever, who played actor-turned-history teacher Charlie Moore in Head of the Class, has died. He was 81.

Hesseman died in Los Angeles on Saturday of complications from intestinal surgery, his manager Robbie Kass said on Sunday.

Hesseman, who was a radio DJ himself in the ’60s, received two Emmy nominations for his role as Johnny Fever on CBS’ WKRP in Cincinnati, which ran for four seasons from 1978-1982. The role made Hesseman a counterculture icon at a time when few hippie characters were making it onto network television.

In the first episode, Dr. Johnny Fever announced the station’s switch from elevator music to rock ‘n’ roll with a record scratch and a proclamation.

“All right Cincinnati, it’s time this city went under! You have Johnny, Dr. Johnny Fever, and I’m burning in here. We are all in critical condition babies but you can tell me where it hurts I got the healing recipe from the big KRP music medicine cabinet here. Now I’m talking about your 50,000 watt intensive care unit, babies!”

In 1979, while preparing for one of three “Saturday Night Live” host appearances, Hesseman told the New York Times that the character made network executives nervous. In one episode, Johnny Fever is subjected to an on-air sobriety test after being dosed with alcohol, only his reaction time continues to improve.

“I think Johnny might smoke some marijuana, drink beer and wine and maybe some booze,” Hesseman said. “And on one of those rough mornings on the ward, he might take what for many years was called a diet pill. But he is a moderate user of soft drugs, especially marijuana.”

Hesseman played a hippie in one of his first roles, in 1967’s Dragnet, and in Richard Lester’s 1968 film Petulia. Born in Lebanon, Oregon, Hesseman wasn’t as detached from some of the characters he played. In 1983, he told People magazine that he had “performed pharmaceutical experiments in recreational chemistry.” In 1963 he was jailed in San Francisco for selling marijuana.

Hesseman first performed under the name Don Sturdy and began as a member of the San Francisco improv group The Committee, which regularly performed at anti-war and civil rights protests.

At the time, he was working part-time as a Saturday night disc jockey for San Francisco rock and roll station KMPX. Later on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” Hesseman often shared his on-air banter at will.

“It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Howard Hesseman on his and subsequent generations of improvisers,” actor and comedian Michael McKean said on Twitter. He recalled first seeing Hesseman with The Committee in 1971. “I saw he was the real deal.”

Hesseman made a brief but memorable appearance with McKean in the 1984 rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap as Terry Ladd, manager of rock superstar Duke Fame. He candidly ends a conversation: “We’d love to stay and chat, but we’ll be sitting in the lobby waiting for the limousine.”

On the ABC sitcom Head of the Class, which debuted in 1986, Hesseman played a teacher to a mixed group of students in a classroom where the dialogue was often remarkably progressive in 1980s Ronald Reagan. Hesseman sometimes criticized the show — which was co-created by political activist and writer Michael Elias — as not being as adventurous as he had hoped. He left after four seasons and was replaced by Billy Connolly in the fifth and final season.

“Part of me says, ‘Is that all? A TV series?’ Obviously not. I could go on stage or scratch myself to the movies,” Hesseman said in a 1989 interview. “But how many films are made that you want to be in? And at how many do you want that? There’s a ‘For Rent’ sign on my forehead. I am an actor and I like to work.”

A successful character actor, Hesseman has also appeared on The Andy Griffith Show, One Day at a Time, The Rockford Files, Laverne and Shirley, and The Bob Newhart Show. More recently, he has appeared on That 70’s Show, Fresh Off the Boat, House and Boston Legal. Films included Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, About Schmidt, This Is Spinal Tap and The Rocker.

Hesseman is survived by actress and drama teacher Caroline Ducrocq, his wife.


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