'WKRP in Cincinnati' star Howard Hesseman dies at 81
Howard Hessman received two Emmy nominations for playing Dr. Johnny Fever, morning DJ on the beloved sitcom.
Howard Hesseman – whose Dr. Johnny Fever was the craziest of the crazies living on the air at WKRP In Cincinnati – died Saturday in Los Angeles of complications from colon surgery.
His character set the tone for the beloved 1978-82 sitcom from the opening episode, when program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) hired the radio veteran with a long list of stage names: Johnny Midnight, Johnny Cool, Johnny Style, Johnny Duke, Johnny Caravella, Johnny Sunshine.
"Sunshine?" Travis asked. "Haven't I heard of you?"
To which Johnny Fever replied, "You're not a cop, are ya?"
At WKRP, Fever was the rock 'n' roll ringleader in the station's transition from elevator music when he made his debut on the WKRP airwaves a few minutes into the Sept. 18, 1978 premiere:
"All right, Cincinnati, it is time for this town to get down! Now, you got Johnny . . . Dr. Johnny Fever, and I am burnin' up in here! Whoo! Whoo! We all in critical condition, babies, but you can tell me where it hurts, because I got the healing prescription here from the big 'KRP musical medicine cabinet. Now I am talking about your 50,000-watt intensive care unit, babies! So just sit right down, relax, open your ears real wide and say, 'Give it to me straight, Doctor, I can take it!' "
Fever started playing Ted Nugent's "Queen of the Forest," then grabbed the microphone to say the word which got him fired from a $100,000 DJ job in Los Angeles. "Booger!"
Fans have their favorite WKRP character, and Johnny Fever was mine. His sardonic wit, and his drug-fogged past, provided many memorable moments – and two Emmy nominations for Hesseman as best supporting actor in 1980 and '81.
When WKRP dropped live turkeys over a Cincinnati mall in the hilarious 1978 Thanksgiving episode, Fever told listeners during news director Les Nessman's live remote: "For those of you who just tuned in, the Pinedale Shopping Mall has just been bombed with live turkeys! Film at 11!"
When Fever and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) drank alcohol on air so an Ohio state trooper could demonstrate the danger of drinking and driving, Reid got smashed – but Fever got smarter and sharper.
"I'm not gonna get drunk," Fever said. As the patrolman insisted Fever drink more, a very inebriated Flytrap said, "He's from Mars, officer. Whiskey does not affect alien beings."
In the third season, he was hilarious as disco dance TV show host Rip Tide, the alter-ego he created for the moonlighting gig.
Decades after WKRP ended, I learned that creator Hugh Wilson, a former Atlanta advertising executive, based the Fever character off an Atlanta DJ named Skinny Bobby Harper – who had worked at Cincinnati's WSAI-AM in the 1960s.
Wilson told Hesseman for the pilot, "You've got to play it like you're sleepwalking, because you should be asleep by 8 (p.m.), but 8 is just when you're going out," according to the Hollywood Reporter.
"Howard had at one time been a DJ. He just stepped in and killed it," said Jay Sandrich, the Emmy-winning director who shot the WKRP pilot, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
An Oregon native, he dropped out of the University of Oregon and moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a radio DJ and took the stage name Don Sturdy. He joined an improvisational comedy troupe called The Committee, which included Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall.
Hessemann appeared with The Committee five times on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968-69. He also has four TV credits as Don Sturdy in the Internet Movie Database: Dragnet 1967, two episodes of the Andy Griffith Show (1968) and Billy Jack (1971).
Before 'KRP he also appeared as a Bob Newhart Show patient with writers' block and Louise Lasser's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman soap opera spoof.
After WKRP, Hesseman played an architect on One Day At A Time who married divorcee Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) in the ninth and final season (1984), then starred as an actor-turned-teacher in ABC's Head Of The Class (1986-90).
His movie roles included This Is Spinal Tap, Doctor Detroit, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment and Flight Of The Navigator.
He enjoyed a long career as a TV guest star on everything from Murder She Wrote, The Practice, Boston Legal, Chicago Med, Mike & Molly, That '70s Show and House to Touched By An Angel, The Outer Limits, Family Law, HBO's John From Cincinnati, Fresh Off The Boat (his last TV role in 2017) and the short-lived syndicated The New WKRP In Cincinnati (1991-93).
Hesseman died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Los Angeles of complications from colon surgery he first had last summer, his wife told the Hollywood Reporter.