Howard Hesseman, the actor and improv comedian best known for playing a radio disc jockey stuck in the ’60s on the television sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 81 years old.
His wife, Caroline Ducrocq, said he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of complications from colon surgery last summer.
Mr. Hesseman received two Emmy nominations for playing Dr. Johnny Fever in “WKRP in Cincinnati,” which aired on CBS for four seasons from 1978 to 1982.
The series depicts a struggling Top 40 rock radio station, where the staff rage against the disco era with hard rock and punk songs. Mr. Hesseman’s tough character, having been kicked out of a Los Angeles station where he was a star, is a senior member of the Midwestern counterculture after successfully landing a job.
“I think Johnny maybe smokes a little marijuana, drinks beer and wine, and maybe a little hard liquor,” Mr. Hesseman told The New York Times in 1979. for many years , it has been called a diet pill. But he is a moderate user of soft drugs, particularly marijuana.
Johnny Fever was a beloved television character who embodied the essential traits of 1960s counterculture: the cult of rock bands; not-so-veiled drug references; long, shaggy hair.
In scenehe wears dark sunglasses as he DJs, speaks in a relaxed tone as he leans into the microphone and says in a thick voice, “We keep rocking on the mighty KRP, where the man with the razor stands ready to brighten your day.”
He said WXYZ-TV Detroit in 2012 that the show was made up of “a great company of actors, bolstered by a nice group of writers, so it made it fun to work with every day”.
Some were probably not surprised to see Mr. Hesseman excel in this role. In San Francisco, where Mr. Hesseman helped start an improv comedy troupe, The Committee, he worked as a radio DJ in 1967. At Bay Area station, KMPX, he played “strange tapes “of the rock and smoke movement” a lot of pot – always against my will, of course,” he said. weekly people in 1979.
Mr Hesseman told The Times in 1979 that he had spent 90 days in San Francisco County Jail in 1963 for selling an ounce of marijuana – a conviction which was later thrown out for entrapment. He would later say that smoking marijuana was “a sort of residual hobby”.
George Howard Hesseman was born on February 27, 1940 in Lebanon, Oregon, and was raised as an only child by his mother and stepfather.
He was introduced to acting by an uncle in Colorado, and years later Mr. Hesseman said, “Every time I act is like paying him a debt.”
He briefly attended the University of Oregon, but quit school and moved to San Francisco, where he was able to focus on his career.
Mr. Hesseman, who was also admired for his talent as an improviser, had small roles in ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and ‘Sanford and Son’.
George Spiro Dibie, former National President of the International Cinematographers Guild, recalled in a interview with the Television Academy Foundation that Mr. Hesseman’s background was evident on the set of “Head of the Class,” an ABC sitcom that aired from 1986 to 1991.
“He was even telling some directors what to do,” he said. Mr. Hesseman played Charlie Moore, a teacher at a Manhattan high school struggling with a class of overachieving students.
He landed roles in cult classics like the mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap,” where he starred alongside Michael McKean, who said on Twitter Sunday that it was “impossible to overstate Howard Hesseman’s influence on his and subsequent generation of improvisers”.
In 1981, after two marriages that ended in divorce, he met Madame Ducrocq, a French actress visiting Los Angeles. Ms. Ducrocq’s friend asked her if she wanted to swim in an actor’s pool, and she said yes.
“I had no idea who he was,” Ms. Ducrocq said with a laugh.
She stayed at his house for dinner, then stayed when he brought out a bottle of champagne, which she later learned he had never drunk in his life. In 1989, they got married.
He loved listening to jazz, swimming and catching up with his godchildren, she said.
Mr. Hesseman once said in a interview that “smiling makes you feel younger; work makes you feel a bit more nimble.
He is survived by Mrs. Ducrocq.