Family & Companions
A fixture on the improv comedy scene of the 1960s, Howard Hesseman burst into the mainstream with his roguish Dr. Johnny Fever on the celebrated 1980s sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati" (CBS, 1978-1982). The eccentric DJ character, which earned him two Emmy nominations, was the high water mark of a decade of work in features and on television prior to the role, and a decade as a member of the San Francisco-based comedy troupe The Committee prior to that. Hesseman followed "WKRP" with another hit series, "Head of the Class" (ABC, 1986-1991), which he abandoned one year prior to its cancellation for greener pastures in features. Success in that venue proved elusive for Hesseman, but he worked steadily on television for years following his sitcom tenures, and his comic skills made him a reliable and well-regarded character actor.
Born in Lebanon, OR on Feb. 27, 1940, Hesseman's parents divorced when he was five, and he was close with his stepfather, a policeman. An uncle in Colorado helped to develop his initial interest in acting, and he pursued it further at the University of Oregon. But by the mid-1960s, Hesseman was caught up in the wave of social consciousness that was sweeping the youth movement during the decade, and he left college to travel to San Francisco and absorb the vibrant hippie scene there. For several months in 1967, he worked as a DJ on KMPX radio, which served him well for his work on "WKRP"; Hesseman also joined the improvisational comedy group The Committee during this period. The influential troupe, founded by Second City veteran Alan Myerson, counted future "Jaws" (1975) screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, improv legend Del Close and actors Peter Bonerz, Barbara Bosson and Hamilton Camp among its members, and was a mainstay of both the local theater environment and civil rights protests. A live performance of the company, including Hesseman, was filmed in 1969 and released as "A Session with The Committee," and the group made regular appearances on the politically savvy "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1967-69), which counted Gottlieb among its celebrated writing staff. While a member of The Committee, and for several years after, Hesseman billed himself as "Don Sturdy."
During this period, Hesseman also began landing his first dramatic television roles on series like "The Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1960-68) and "Dragnet 1967" (NBC, 1967-1970), his role on the latter - a smug hippie whose theories are debunked in a debate with Jack Webb's Sgt. Joe Friday - epitomized Hesseman's roles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hesseman's counterculture credentials were better utilized in films that catered to that demographic, like "The Christian Licorice Store" (1971) and "Cisco Pike" (1972), the most successful of these, and the film that gave Hesseman and The Committee some of their widest exposure, was "Billy Jack" (1971), Tom Laughlin's blockbuster cult movie about a half-Native American vet with martial arts prowess who comes to the aid of an experimental school. Hesseman and The Committee were featured in a lengthy scene as a drama teacher and his students, as well as performed in several skits.
Hesseman worked steadily in features and television throughout the early '70s; comedy was a natural destination, and he gave memorable appearances in everything from Hollywood product like "Shampoo" (1975), "The Sunshine Boys" (1976) and Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie" to underground sketch films like "Tunnel Vision" (1976) and sitcoms like "The Bob Newhart Show" (CBS, 1972-1978), where he played a semi-regular patient of Newhart's, and "Soap" (ABC, 1977-1981), which cast him as twin attorneys, one a prosecutor, the other for the defense. He was also a regular in TV dramas and episodic TV, including the Joseph McCarthy biopic "Tail Gunner Joe" (NBC, 1977) and "The Amazing Howard Hughes" (CBS, 1977). But "WKRP," which debuted in 1978, put Hesseman on the pop culture map.
Inspired by real-life Cincinnati DJ Skinny Bobby Harper, Dr. Johnny Fever was, like Hesseman, a Sixties survivor who has bounced from station to station throughout his checkered career before landing at the low-rated WKRP. Fever's appeal was his stream-of-consciousness monologues and a taste for early that era's rock ' n' roll - both of which clashed with the station's management and ownership. As the series progressed, Johnny's character was fleshed out beyond his outlandish trappings - he enjoys a relationship with station newcomer Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) and even shows a gullible side when he is wooed by a local television station to host a show dedicated to Fever's bête noir - disco. After a brief stint on the program, and an even shorter tenure in Los Angeles - where he is fired for cursing on air - Fever returns to his senses and winds up the city's top-rated DJ. Hesseman, who improvised much of Fever's machine-gun patter, was widely praised for his performance and earned two Emmy nominations in 1980 and 1981. He would reprise the role several times on the hotly contested syndicated sequel, "The New WKRP in Cincinnati" (1991-93).
Hesseman kept a hand in movies during his time on "WKRP," though none of these efforts were particularly notable; he was part of the raunchy sketch comedy film "Loose Shoes" (1980) and gave character turns in "Honky Tonk Freeway" (1981) and the semi-softcore "Private Lessons" (1981). More substantial was a dramatic turn as a serial rapist in the TV-movie "Victims" (1982). He remained exceptionally busy in the years after "WKRP's" demise; feature turns included "Doctor Detroit" (1983), "This is Spinal Tap" (1984) as sell-out shock rocker Terry Ladd; "Clue" (1985) and "My Chauffeur" (1985), while on television, he played Doc in a live TV production of "Mister Roberts" (1984) and enjoyed a recurring role as Sam Royer, who marries Bonnie Franklin's hip divorcee on "One Day at a Time" (CBS, 1975-1984) from 1982 to 1984. There were occasional showcases for his versatility beyond light comedy, like the William Goldman-penned actioner "Heat" (1986), with Burt Reynolds, and the TV-movie "Six Against the Rock" (NBC, 1987), which cast him as an unhinged escapee from Alcatraz, but for the most part, Hesseman played it loose and funny.
In 1986, Hesseman returned to network television on "Head of the Class," an amiable classroom comedy about an out-of-work actor who teaches history and life lessons to a group of gifted but socially awkward high school students, a la "Welcome Back Kotter" (ABC, 1975-79). Though ostensibly the star of the series, Hesseman worked well in the ensemble setting, and the show was a modest hit for several years. In 1988, Hesseman and his castmates - including then-wife of boxer Mike Tyson, Robin Givens - entered the history books by becoming the first American sitcom actors to film inside the Soviet Union during an episode that pitted the U.S. students against their Russian counterparts. In 1990, Hesseman left the series to pursue features, and was replaced by Scottish comic Billy Connolly, who lasted just one season with the show before its cancellation.
After "Class," Hesseman was steadily employed, mostly on television, with occasional forays into features like "About Schmidt" (2002) and Harry Shearer's improvised comedy, "Teddy Bears' Picnic" (2002). There were plenty of low-budget efforts as well, like "Munchie Strikes Back" (1994), in which he voiced the title gremlin, but for the most part, Hesseman was a staple of television sitcoms and dramas. He was Laura Prepon's radio station boss on three episodes of "That '70s Show" (Fox, 1998-2006), an offbeat judge on a trio of "Boston Legal" (ABC, 2004-08) episodes, and a former drug dealer on the short-lived "John from Cincinnati" (HBO, 2007). Hesseman returned to features with some regularity after 2007 with small but noticeable roles in films ranging from "Martian Child" (2007) and "The Rocker" (2008) to Rob Zombie's "Halloween II" (2009) and the critically devastated Sandra Bullock film , "All About Steve" (2009).