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.
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.