R.I.P. Howard Hesseman, Dr. Johnny Fever of WKRP in Cincinnati

He used his real-life DJ experience to craft one of the great characters in sitcom history.

The Everett Collection

MeTV will be airing a tribute to Howard Hesseman this Sunday, February 6, starting at 4P | 3C. Click here for full details.

Howard Hesseman originally was called in to read for the role of WKRP ad salesman Herb Tarlek, but he insisted that the only character right for him was Dr. Johnny Fever. He won over the showrunners and landed the part. What really sealed the deal on the character of Johnny Fever as a convincing DJ was Hesseman adding all his little flourishes to the show.

Hesseman's zippy quips and booth antics were pulled from his real experience as a pioneering DJ at what is largely regarded as the birthplace of freeform radio, KMPX in San Francisco. Of course, the actor wasn't known as Johnny Fever back then in the late 1960s. His real DJ handle was "DJ Don Sturdy."

Freeform radio was born by accident at KMPX in 1967, when DJ Larry Miller began spinning his favorite folk tunes whenever opportunity arose during an empty time slot on the AM station. The rest of the story sounds a lot like the premise of WKRP in Cincinnati: An ambitious Top 40 radio DJ, Tom Donahue, was trying to figure out why nobody on Earth would play The Doors, calling station after station gathering intel. That's how he came to call KMPX one day and found the line was disconnected. The beeping phone set off a light bulb over his head: What if he convinced this clearly failing radio station to change its format to embrace a freeform style that focused more on rock albums than pop singles? Donahue figured this could help him get bands like The Doors on the radio.

Donahue's wild idea helped the station stand out, and so did the radio personalities he recruited — including a young Howard Hesseman.

So, Hesseman was in some way repeating his own history when portrayed Dr. Johnny Fever more than a decade later. Not only did he have the chops, but he'd established those chops as an actual radio pioneer who mixed rock, blues, jazz and folk on his own radio show. WKRP creator Hugh Wilson even let Hesseman ad-lib his own intros to songs on the sitcom.

Hesseman reprised the role for The New WKRP in Cincinnati and even directed some episodes. Though he will forever be associated with Johnny Fever, it was not his only hit role.

In the late '80s he became teacher Charlie Moore for Head of the Class, a kind of late-'80s spin on the Welcome Back, Kotter formula. He also had a recurring role as the love interest on One Day at a Time.

Rewinding to his early career, you will find Hesseman — minus his iconic mustache — on The Andy Griffith Show. He made his television debut as a counter boy in "Goober Goes to an Auto Show." An appearance on Dragnet came a few months later.

Over his career, Hesseman earned two Emmy nominations. On January 29, he died in Los Angeles, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 81.

 
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GEMof72 9 months ago
RIH. My whole childhood favorites are leaving this earth. 🥲
slim115W 9 months ago
WKRP is one of my favorite shows. Maybe due to the fact that I was a DJ for a couple of years. The two stations I worked at had similar qualities!:
illusion4 10 months ago
Put it on rotation again, or at least "Turkey's Away" on Thanksgiving Day? RIP Frank & Howard🙏
LmerFudd illusion4 9 months ago
As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.
FunnyGermanLady2022 10 months ago
I think you guys should have a wkrp marathon on bdays of all main characters and also on date of death for those of them no longer with us. Think about it. It would be 😎 ✌😍
FunnyGermanLady2022 10 months ago
So sad to no longer hear from Dr. Johnny Fever. I will miss him dearly but thank god for WKRP Reruns and videos. My favorite episode was Fish Story I loved the brotherhood between him and Venus cracks me up everytime. Of course I try to watch the Turkey episode every thanksgiving its a tradition. R. I. P
Howard and Frank
I love the whole cast. 😇✌😍😘
Thank you for the laughs. 😄😹
jacko3 10 months ago
GOD Rest the Soul and Life of Howard Hesseman * Amen - Alleluia!
Connie 10 months ago
He also appeared on the Bob Newhart Show as a client who is getting therapy after losing his job.
MichaelGreene 10 months ago
Howard Hesseman's Dragnet appearance was in the first episode of Dragnet's 3rd color season...he was billed as "Don Sturdy", His character was the editor of an Underground newspaper in Los Angeles, partnered with a college professor, played by Stacy Harris, one of Jack Webb's go-to actors, representing the anti-police attitude against Friday and Gannon, who represented the side of the police, in a modified style of debate.
kmhall 10 months ago
Rip Mr. Hessman. Thanks for all the great laughs. I remember watching wkrp in the late afternoon after school. The best sitcom ever. Thanks for the memories.
camdensmom 10 months ago
R.I.P. Thanks for all the wonderful laughs!
leannie429 10 months ago
RIP Dr. Johnny Fever! You made WKRP one of the best comedies of the Eighties!
CecilMJames1 10 months ago
I remember watching him on WKRP In Cincinnati as Johnny Fever and other shows like Head of the Class and One Day At A Time but I didn't like him as Ann Romanos lover though but I'm so sorry and saddened to hear about his passing☹☹☹☹
jaelinsmith40652 10 months ago
That was so amazing, cool actor and very nice outstanding roles I really like watching one of the shows that I didn't notice he was a true actor. I'll watch the tribute marathon of him.
mackjaz 10 months ago
Interesting that no one mentions his appearance in Billy Jack. I think of that as a significant movie - maybe that's not the case?
Snickers mackjaz 10 months ago
Can't even remember the actors name who played Billy Jack.
LmerFudd 10 months ago
Found the lyrics to the closing song; finally finally know the words:
"Said to the bartender "Best night I ever had"
Singin' to the bar
Had a microphone (in)to her heart
I said -
Goodbye madam
I'd had a bird in hand
I said -
I'm doing good
And put love in her heart"
kmhall LmerFudd 10 months ago
I have wondered what the lyrics were since 1978. Thanks !!!!
LmerFudd 10 months ago
I always liked how Les Nesman's bandaid moved around episode to episode.
kmhall LmerFudd 10 months ago
It's because of his dog injuring him.
Mark 10 months ago
Decades will be airing 24 episodes of WKRP this Saturday, METV will only air 2 episodes this Sunday. Proving that Weigel still retains the right to air WKRP, but chooses not to do so on a regular basis either on Decades, which mostly airs sitcoms (as Decades calls it "smartcoma"), or METV.
Snickers Mark 9 months ago
Yes and the two episodes MeTv aired were not even funny.
eyegor 10 months ago
I loved watching WKRP in Cincinnati when I was a kid. The dynamics of all the actors on that show were amazing, and really brought it all together. I'll especially miss Howard Hesseman (Dr. Fever).
Hunter123abc 10 months ago
I noticed that METV is playing 6 hours of full house in just under 2 weeks. Why don’t you have a wkrp marathon or a Mary Tyler Moore marathon. I don’t think full house should be on METV. I think you should bring back shows in the memory of Betty white and Howard Hesseman. I am not impressed.
Gracie927 10 months ago
I really liked him. Sad that he's gone. By JF....RIP
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