Howard Hesseman, the veteran actor known for starring in sitcoms “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Head of the Class,” died Jan. 29 at the age of 81. The actor is remembered here by his friend and fellow “WKRP” star, actor-director Tim Reid.
I first met Howard Hesseman at a cast meeting before we shot the pilot for “WKRP in Cincinnati.” The first thing I had to do was admit that I’d lifted something from him years back.
Back in the early 1970s, I was one-half of a Black and white comedy duo with Tom Dreesen. The concept for our signature routine was borrowed — OK, lifted — from a very funny sketch that Hesseman had been a part of years before with his improv troupe, The Committee. It was a bit about teaching one of their white members how to be Black. Today it would be politically incorrect for sure. Tom and I took that framework and worked our own routine into it. It became our signature piece.
At our first meeting, I walked up to Howard and said, “I’m the thief who lifted your routine.” Rather than get angry at me, Howard laughed and said, “You did a good job with it.” And that started a beautiful friendship.
Howard was a unique person and a gentle soul. He was a real hippie, long after tie-dye and beads had lost their appeal for many. Off screen, he was smooth and cool in the older definition of cool — very relaxed, very well-educated. He was a wonderful person to sit down with for a couple of drinks to discuss life.
He always had his signature style with his hats and scarfs. He was wearing red shoes before any guys, outside of Elton John, were wearing red shoes.
Howard and I traveled the world together. We chased giraffes in Africa. We met up on vacations with our wives in Paris and Italy. We were two opposites, spirit-wise. He had that quiet humor. I can’t remember ever hearing him express himself in a really loud, aggressive way.
As an actor, Howard was so talented. He could play drama, he could play comedy, and he could improvise with the best of them. He was like a chameleon — whatever the scene called for in terms of believability of the situation, he brought with his unique style.
“WKRP” and the character of Dr. Johnny Fever was a perfect fit for Howard. Series creator Hugh Wilson gave us a level of creative freedom that was unheard of in television production. Howard and I were given control of the characters of Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap. Not the words they said, but the ability to shape the characters. He encouraged us to bring a measure of our personal feelings and style to characters.
There was a little friction at the beginning of “WKRP” between Howard and Hugh, but once Howard saw Hugh was serious about giving us freedom, mutual respect was established and the joyful complexities of Johnny Fever emerged.
Hugh pushed us to to keep exploring the layers of our characters. He even let us pick our own music used in the scenes, just like realworld DJs. I still remember getting a call from Rita Marley telling me that Bob Marley wanted to thank me for helping to break his music in the U.S. by playing him on the show. Soon after, radio stations in America start to give Bob Marley and reggae more respect. Howard was the first DJ to break Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” on our show.
Howard loved the process of acting. But he didn’t suffer fools well, especially when it came to bad material. That was what helped make “WKRP” so special. I believe Howard would say that “WKRP” was the most freedom he ever had as an actor.
There’s a connection between many members of the “WKRP” cast that went a lot deeper than the usual professional relationships. It’s truly the only real TV family I have ever been part of. I learned the news of Howard’s death from Loni Anderson, who spoke with him a few days before he passed.
In his later years, Howard was an erudite, peaceful, funny man who loved to split his time living with his wife Caroline in the south of France and in Southern California. Think of a mellow, Salvador Dali-type of character with a warm smile, neatly wrapped scarf, signature red shoes — with a large blunt in hand.
(Pictured: Howard Hesseman)