Dawn McElligott: Howard Hesseman has gone “Gentle, Into that Good Night”

by Dawn McElligott

Howard Hesseman, the actor who portrayed a man experiencing a rebirth on WKRP in Cincinnati, passed away on January 29th at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

His third wife, Caroline DuCroc, was at his side when he died of complications from colon cancer.  The actor had no biological children, but he did have three god-children, Hamish, Grace and Chet.  Hamish and Grace were also present at his passing.

In a January issue of thefocus.com, Bruno Cooke chronicled the tribute paid to Hesseman by godson Hamish Linklater.  The article quotes Linklater’s loving tribute to Hesseman on Instagram, describing the actor as “my splendid and beloved godfather” who had “matriculated into the elite improv comedy set in the sky …”

Hesseman’s character on WKRP, John Caravella, became a symbol of an aging hippy, despite the growing popularity of neoconservatism.  During the 1970s, radio stations were playing rock, disco, soul and any other tunes making it into the Top 40.  As the decade wound down, hippies were becoming yuppies and radio advertisers were dictating stricter formats.  Flower power was dying and DJs were losing their freedom.

In September 1978, WKRP IN CINCINNATI debuted on CBS.  It was the brainchild of 35-year-old Hugh Wilson who had begun his career as a sales executive at a radio station in Atlanta.  A friendship with Jay Tarsus led to a meeting in 1975 with Grant Tinker.

The meeting kicked off Wilson’s TV career.   After penning some episodes of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and co-producing THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, Wilson approached Tinker about creating a sitcom based on his experiences at the radio station.

Wilson created John Caravella based on a DJ he had worked with in Atlanta, Skinny Bobby Harper.  In the pilot episode, Caravella has lost his lucrative position as a DJ in Los Angeles for the crime of using the word “booger” on the air.  Caravella is now working for an easy listening station, WKRP in Cincinnati.

Resigned to his fate, Caravella is barely able to muster the energy needed to introduce the next record, The Hallelujah Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of “(You’re) Having My Baby.”

As Caravella struggles to stay awake, the new Programming Manager, Andy Travis, informs him he’s changing the station’s format immediately to rock.  Upon realizing he can play his favorite music again, Caravella comes alive and reintroduces himself as Dr. Johnny Fever.  The transformation called for just the right actor.

When Howard Hesseman was invited to audition for the role of Sales Manager, Herb Tarlek, he insisted on reading only for the part of Dr. Johnny Fever. At that point, Hesseman’s career was similar to Hugh Wilson’s journey.  Hesseman too, had prior experience at a radio station.  The actor had been a DJ at KMPX FM in San Francisco during the 1960s.

Hesseman’s radio experience helped him win the part of a DJ who plays records during the morning show after an evening of nightclubbing.  Dr. Johnny Fever was often barely awake, hiding his fatigue with sunglasses.  A continual conflict arises through Fever’s insistence on playing only the music he finds meaningful, rather than the popular hits the station would prefer.   After being reborn as Dr. Johnny Fever, no one, not even the beleaguered Andy Travis would dictate the playlist to him.
Hugh Wilson allowed Hesseman to use some creative license on the show.  When his character reintroduced himself as Dr. Johnny Fever, Hesseman played the moment with contagious, electrifying energy.

It is a milestone in TV history.  Viewers witnessed the radio station switching to music associated with rebellion at the same time as a man who’d been done wrong, getting a second chance at happiness.

In 1980 and ‘81, Hesseman was nominated for a Prime-Time Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series as Fever.  Unfortunately, although the show was adored by critics, it struggled in the ratings.  CBS cancelled the series in April 1982.

Four years later, Hesseman assumed a starring role on HEAD OF THE CLASS playing Charlie Moore, an actor turned teacher at the fictional Millard Fillmore High School. Hesseman left the show after four seasons, citing a shift in the series’ focus from the teacher to his students.

Shortly after Hesseman’s passing, Distractify.com republished an interview from The Chicago Tribune in which Hesseman had explained his departure. “I don’t want to air dirty laundry in public, but I do feel that the educational arena is one that offers a variety of story ideas as a means of investigating our lives, what we mean to one another and what’s important…We could do all that with considerable humor, not with jokes, but with genuine humor that comes out of character and situations.”

11When the original WKRP went into reruns, it was an unexpected hit, spawning one the first reboots in TV history:  THE NEW WKRP IN CINCINNATI.  Hesseman reprised his role of Dr. Johnny Fever, appearing as an occasional guest star for the series during its run from 1991 to 1993.

Hesseman continued playing offbeat characters in both film and TV for several years.  In 2008, he portrayed Gator, the cool bus driver for a ragtag rock group in the film, THE ROCKER, starring Rainn Wilson.

No matter how many roles Hesseman played, to most fans, the actor will always be remembered fondly as Dr. Johnny Fever, the character who stayed old school cool, while the rest of society was canoodling with conformity … “I almost forgot fellow babies, BOOGER!”

Dawn McElligott is a an award-winning writer and filmmaker who lives on the East Coast. You can learn more about her HERE

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