Frank Bonner has died. A prolific actor and director, Bonner was best known for the decades he spent working in television—most notably on WKRP In Cincinnati, where he co-starred as loudly dressed, loudly voiced, utterly incompetent sales manager Herb Tarlek. As Tarlek, Bonner embodied an extremely specific sort of ’70s and ’80s archetype, an endlessly hustling sleaze merchant working with just enough humanity to stay on the safe side of repulsive. When the series wrapped in the early ’80s, Bonner moved out into directing, heading up nearly 200 episodes of television across a 20-plus year career. Per Variety, Bonner died this week from Lewy body dementia. He was 79.
Born in Arkansas, Bonner’s first major screen credit was not in comedy, but horror; he appeared (under his birth name, Frank Boers Jr.), in Jack Woods’ cult film Equinox, playing one of several hapless folks who end up getting killed by demons in the low-budget 1970 film (itself an expansion of an earlier short film by Dennis Muren, which Bonner also starred in). After that brief sojourn in film, Bonner spent most of the 1970s (and, indeed, the rest of his career) working in TV, doing single-episode appearances and small roles on shows like Mannix, Cannon, and Police Woman.
Bonner got his big break in 1978, when he joined the cast of WKRP, which (after a rocky start) quickly gained traction with critics and fans. Herb Tarlek’s hideously tasteless outfits turned the character into an instant walking visual gag, matched to Bonner’s ability to project endless, morally bankrupt optimism in spite of any and all possible setbacks. Bonner was a regular stand-out in a talent-packed cast, and, when the show was revived in 1991 as The New WKRP, he was one of three cast members (alongside Gordon Jump and Richard Sanders) to reprise his role as a regular.
Meanwhile, WKRP also opened another door for Bonner’s career: Directing. After helming multiple episodes of the series proper, Bonner continued to work in TV direction for the next 20 years, directing episodes of shows like Just The Ten Of Us (on which he also had a recurring role), The New WKRP, and Evening Shade. He showed an especial interest in the burgeoning world of teen sitcoms kicked off by Saved By The Bell; in addition to directing four episodes of SBTB spin-off The New Class, Bonner also directed a large number of episodes of USA’s USA High, and the entire five-season run of City Guys, which aired on NBC on Saturday mornings from 1997 to 2001. (City Guys star Scott Whyte paid tribute to Bonner on social media this weekend, including posting a clip of Bonner’s one appearance on the series, which Whyte and co-star Wesley Jonathan apparently had to beg him to step in front of the camera to do.)
Bonner’s death was announced this week in a Facebook post by his daughter, Desiree Boers-Kort, who wrote that, “He loved his fans and was still signing autograph requests up until the last few weeks of his illness.”