Howard Hesseman, a prolific character actor who became a beloved TV mainstay through his roles on sitcoms “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Head of the Class,” died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Los Angeles of complications from colon surgery he had undergone last summer. He was 81 years old.
Hesseman’s death was confirmed to Variety by his longtime rep Robbie Kass.
“Howard was a groundbreaking talent and lifelong friend whose kindness and generosity was equaled by his influence and admiration to generations of actors and improvisational comedy throughout the world,” Kass stated.
Born in Lebanon, Ore. on Feb. 27, 1940, Hesseman became a counterculture favorite as he ascended into the world of entertainment in the late 1960’s. In 1965, he joined the improvisational comedy troupe The Committee in San Francisco, serving as a performing member for 10 years. Hesseman continued his start in entertainment as a radio DJ, broadcasting under the name “Don Sturdy” and began to appear in small guest roles on “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Dragnet 1967,” “Soap” and “Sanford and Son.”
With his signature long hair and handlebar mustache, Hesseman found his most iconic role playing radio DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on the CBS sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati.” The character of a down-on-his-luck rock radio disc jockey (Fever was famously fired from a bigger market for saying the word “booger” on air) rang true with Hesseman, who spent time in radio early in his career.
Hesseman earned two Emmy nominations for his work on “WKRP,” which hailed from MTM Productions and ran on CBS from 1978 to 1982. Hesseman was also well-known for his 1986-1991 starring role as Charlie Moore on ABC’s ensemble comedy “Head of the Class,” playing a teacher at a Manhattan high school for high achievers. He also joined the cast of the long-running CBS comedy “One Day at a Time” for its ninth and final season in 1982-83.
Hesseman logged dozens of TV guest shots from the 1960s until recently, with credits ranging from “The Rockford Files,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and numerous “Saturday Night Live” hosting gigs. Additionally, Hesseman had guest starred on “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Chicago Med,” “Mike & Molly,” “Psych” and “House.” He had recurring roles on “Boston Legal” and “That 70s Show.”
Amid the peak TV production boom, Hesseman also logged numerous made-for-TV movie roles, including “A Christmas in Vermont,” “The Homeless Detective” and “Bigfoot.”
Beyond television, Hesseman also appeared across several films over his five-decade-spanning career, with credits including “Salvation Boulevard,” “Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment,” “About Schmidt,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Gridlock’d,” “Wild Oats,” “The Rocker,” “All About Steve” and Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II.”