R.I.P. Frank Bonner, the colorful Herb Tarlek of WKRP in Cincinnati
The Arkansas native played one of the great characters of Seventies sitcoms.
Frank Bonner was born Frank Woodrow Boers Jr. and named after his father, a saxophone player who married a singer named Mamie Grace. The Arkansas family had showbiz in its blood.
Frank Jr. was still going by his given name when he made his acting debut, in The Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural, a short Sixties horror film made by Pasadena City College students. The filmmakers got a modest four-figure budget to expand the flick to a feature, which shortened its name to Equinox. The 1970 movie, with its demons and monsters, became a cult favorite.
From there, Frank took the name Bonner and picked up small roles on television, popping up on Mannix and The Young Lawyers. He remained a bit player on TV for most of the decade, later landing bit parts on Emergency!, Cannon and Police Woman.
In 1978, Bonner scored his big break, grabbing the role of Herb Tarlek on the subversive rock 'n' roll sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.
Bonner stood out, and not just due to his loud plaid blazers. His salesman character was brash, boorish and rather tacky, which, naturally, made him one of the great supporting characters in Seventies television. There was a little of Bonner in Tarlek, who kept an Arkansas Razorbacks mug on his WKRP desk in honor of his home state.
There's a famous line from the show in the second-season episode "Put Up or Shut Up" where Venus Flytrap tells Herb Tarlek, who dependably wears tacky suit after tacky suit, "Somewhere out there, there's a Volkswagen with no seats." Apparently, Herb really did wear a suit on the show that was made out of Volkswagen seat covers.
Tarlek was the center of one of the great episodes in the series, "Real Families," when the Tarlek clan is selected to go on a reality show. That was pioneering stuff in 1980.
Bonner became so well known as Tarlek that he became rather typecast, reprising the role a decade later in The New WKRP in Cincinnati (1991–93). In between, he did have a recurring role on the TGIF sitcom Just the Ten of Us, where he played the headmaster of a Catholic school.
Behind the scenes, Bonner worked as a director, getting his start behind the camera for a handful of WKRP episodes. He would also direct episodes of Head of the Class, reuniting him with his old WKRP pal Howard Hesseman.
On June 16, Bonner died in his California home, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 79.