Howard Hesseman, Dr. Johnny Fever on 'WKRP in Cincinnati,' Dies at 81
Howard Hesseman, who played Dr. Johnny Fever on TV's "WKRP in Cincinnati," died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai in L.A. He was 81.
Hesseman's longtime friend, "SNL" alum Laraine Newman, broke the news on Twitter, writing, "RIP Howard Hessman. What great times we had. Great laughs and fun going to see Etta James in Manhattan Beach and Joe Tex at The Parisian Room. Staying at your beautiful house in Ramatuellle. Oh god this hurts."
His wife confirmed to THR that he died Saturday of complications resulting from colon surgery he underwent in 2021.
Born on February 27, 1940, in Lebanon, Oregon, Hesseman moved to San Francisco and, with David Ogden Stiers, founded the improv troupe The Committee.
In his earliest work, he was credited as Don Sturdy, and often played hippie types. He made his TV debut on "The Andy Griffith Show" (1968).
Hesseman appeared in numerous films, including "Petulia" (1968), "Where It's At" (1969), "Billy Jack" (1971), "Cisco Pike" (1971), "Shampoo" (1975), "Silent Movie" (1976), "Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment" (1985), "Flight of the Navigator" (1986), and "Halloween II" (2009), but was more known for his TV career.
In his first major impression on television, he made six appearances as Craig Plager on "The Bob Newhart Show" (1974-1978), a character with writer's block who was later identified as gay.
After many more TV guest spots — "Rhoda" (1974), "Mannix" (1975), "Family" (1976), "Baretta" (1976), and "Laverne & Shirley" (1976) among them — he played Dr. Robert Williams on the cult classic TV series "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" (1976-1977). He also had a fondly remembered recurring role on the similarly out-there spoof "Soap" (1978).
From 1978-1982, Hesseman became famous as disco-loathing DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on "WKRP in Cincinnati," and was Emmy-nominated twice for his work on the series. Fever's had been fired from his last gig for saying the word "booger" on the air. It was a different time.
Hesseman reprised the role on "The New WKRP in Cincinnati" (1991-1993).
Hesseman's other most famous roles were as Terry Ladd in the mockumentary classic "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) and as teacher Charlie Moore on the sitcom "Head of the Class" (1986-1990).
A three-time "SNL" host, Hesseman once paid tribute to his late friend John Belushi on the show in a controversial monologue in 1982. After joking that Belushi, who'd died of a cocaine overdose, might be alive had he said, "No Coke, Pepsi" — a line Belushi made famous on the show — Hesseman closed with, “The clock is ticking. We’ll all be joining Belushi soon enough. So if any of this has offended some of you, fine. I think John would have wanted it that way. And John, man, if any of this has offended you, pal, we’ll get together. We’ll talk.”
Hesseman worked steadily in TV and film, including playing the husband of Bonnie Franklin's Ann Romano character for two seasons (1982-1984) on "One Day at a Time" and appearing on three episodes of "That '70s Show" (2001), three episodes of "Boston Legal" (2006-2007), and two episodes of "Fresh Off the Boat" (2017). He was very active in the theater.
He is survived by his wife of more than 30 years, Caroline Ducrocq.
Longtime friend Michael McKean memorialized him on Twitter, writing:
Impossible to overstate Howard Hesseman’s influence on his and subsequent generations of improvisors. The first time I saw him on stage (Troubadour, ’71, with The Committee) I saw that he was the real deal. He was a friend for 50 years. 1/3