NEW YORK (AP) — Howard Hesseman, who played radio disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever on the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati” and actor-turned-history teacher Charlie Moore on “Head of the Class,” has died. He was 81 years old.
Hesseman died Saturday in Los Angeles of complications from colon surgery, his manager Robbie Kass said Sunday.
Hesseman, who had been a radio DJ in the ’60s, earned two Emmy nominations for playing Johnny Fever on CBS’s “WKRP in Cincinnati,” which ran for four seasons from 1978 to 1982. The role made Hesseman a counterculture icon at a time when few hippie characters were making it to network television.
In the first episode, Dr. Johnny Fever announces the station’s change from elevator music to rock ‘n roll with a record scratch and proclamation.
“Alright Cincinnati, it’s time for this town to come down! You got Johnny, Dr. Johnny Fever, and I’m burning up here. We’re all in critical condition, babies, but you can tell me where it hurts because I got the healing recipe here from KRP’s great musical medicine cabinet. Now, I’m talking about your 50,000 watt intensive care unit, babies!
While preparing for one of three “Saturday Night Live” hosting gigs, Hesseman told The New York Times in 1979 that the character made network executives nervous. In one episode, Johnny Fever is given an air sobriety test after being given alcohol, only his reaction time keeps improving.
“I think maybe Johnny smokes a little marijuana, drinks beer and wine, and maybe a little hard liquor,” Hesseman said. “And on one of those rough mornings at the station, I could take what for many years was called a diet pill. But he is a moderate user of soft drugs, specifically marijuana.”
Hesseman played a hippie in one of his earliest roles, in “Dragnet” in 1967, and also in Richard Lester’s 1968 film “Petulia.” Born in Lebanon, Oregon, Hesseman wasn’t that out of touch with some of the characters he played. In 1983, he told People magazine that he had done “pharmaceutical experiments in recreational chemistry.” In 1963 he was jailed in San Francisco for selling marijuana.
Initially performing under the name Don Sturdy, Hesseman 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 also working as a Saturday disc jockey at San Francisco rock and roll station KMPX. Later on “WKRP in Cincinnati”, Hesseman would often improvise his jokes on air.
“It is impossible to overstate the influence of Howard Hesseman on him and subsequent generations of improvisers,” actor and comedian Michael McKean said on Twitter. He recalled seeing Hesseman for the first time in 1971 with The Committee. “I saw that he was the real deal.”
Hesseman briefly but memorably appeared with McKean in the 1984 rock documentary “This Is Spinal Tap” as Terry Ladd, manager of rock superstar Duke Fame. Frankly, he ends a conversation: “We’d love to stay and chat, but we’re going to sit in the lobby and wait for the limo.”
On the ABC sitcom “Head of the Class,” which premiered in 1986, Hesseman played a teacher to a diverse group of students in a classroom where the dialogue was often notably progressive in the 1980s. Ronald Regan. Hesseman sometimes criticized the show, co-created by political activist and writer Michael Elias, for 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 there is? A TV series? Obviously not. I could go on stage or work my way into movies,” Hesseman said in a 1989 interview. “But how many movies are made that you want to be a part of? And how many love you? There’s some kind of “for rent” sign on my forehead. I am an actor and I like to work.”
A prolific character actor, Hesseman’s credits also include “The Andy Griffith Show,” “One Day at a Time,” “The Rockford Files,” “Laverne and Shirley,” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” Most recently, he made appearances on “That 70’s Show,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “House,” and “Boston Legal.” Movies included “Police Academy 2: Your First Assignment,” “About Schmidt,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” and “The Rocker.”
Hesseman is survived by actress and acting teacher Caroline Ducrocq, his wife.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism