No one could spin a plate of American hot wax with more panache that two-time Emmy nominated actor Howard Hesseman in one of his signature roles, Dr. Johnny Fever in WKRP in Cincinnati. Flanked by one of the better ensembles in late 1970s television – Loni Anderson, Frank Bonner, Tim Reid, Gordon Jump and Gary Sandy – Hesseman was a bell-bottomed and disaffected Alan Freed for the Boomer and Generation X set in this CBS comedy, all manic energy, contagious enthusiasm and big-hearted geniality. Somehow it all came together at the end of the half hour, thanks to the heavy-lifting of Hesseman who became a friend to all of the viewers of this Hugh Wilson created sitcom.
Howard Hesseman passed away this past Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles due to complications from colon surgery he had undergone last summer, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 81 years old.
Born in Lebanon, Oregon on February 27, 1940 – the same day that scientists Martin Kamen and Sam Ruben discovered Carbon-14 at the University of California in Berkeley – Hesseman cottoned to acting early, becoming a founding member in the San Francisco-based improve comedy group The Committee. From there it was but a short hop to a 1968 appearance on the classic TV shows Dragnet and (one of my personal favorites) The Andy Griffith Show.
But it was with the 1978-1982 sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati that Hesseman broke into the mainstream as his colorful and rebellious character of Dr. Johnny Fever, a role which he actually prepared for by working as a disc jockey at a San Francisco radio station. The role not only resounded for audiences and critics alike, but also for Hesseman himself; he would go on to reprise the part for nine episodes in the revival series The New WKRP in Cincinnati.
Hesseman found success in other endeavors, too: He had a middling success with ABC’s Head of the Class and played Bonnie Franklin’s new hubby in the latter years of One Day at a Time. Film knew his mark, too, with his appearance in 1985’s Police Academy 2 and the 1986 Disney favorite Flight of the Navigator.
In a tribute post, Hesseman’s fellow actor and friend Laraine Newman recalled better times, saying that they both shared “great laughs and fun going to see Etta James in Manhattan Beach and Joe Tex at The Parisian Room…Oh god this hurts.”
Howard Hesseman is survived by his wife and his godchildren.