Howard Hesseman, a character actor and influential improv comedy performer best known for his role as disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP In Cincinnati, has died from complications related to colon surgery. That news was confirmed by his wife, Caroline Ducrocq, to The Hollywood Reporter. Hesseman was 81.
Born in Oregon in 1940, Hesseman join a San Francisco-based imrpov group called The Committee in the ‘60s when the original founding members (some of whom were veterans of Chicago’s Second City group) left to do their show in a limited run in New York. Eventually, the success of The Committee convinced the people in charge, which included imrpov legend Del Close, to start a second group based on Los Angeles, with Hesseman joining that crew (along with Rob Reiner).
At the same time, Hesseman began working as an actor in film and TV, using the name Don Sturdy (which he had originally used when he was a radio DJ, foreshadowing his eventual sitcom breakout role). Hesseman, as Sturdy, appeared in The Andy Griffith Show, Dragnet 1967, and counterculture cult classic Billy Jack.
Eventually switching over to his own name, Hesseman appeared in Rhoda, Mannix, Sanford And Son, Soap, and The Bob Newhart Show—where he had a years-long recurring gig as Craig Plager, a member of the show’s regular therapy group. In 1978, he joined the cast of WKRP In Cincinnati as John “Dr. Johnny Fever” Caravella, whose off-beat persona played off of Hesseman’s history of hippie-type roles and actual DJ experience. (Including, as THR notes, some time with a man called Skinny Bobby Harper who, like Johnny Fever, somehow had to juggle his love of being out drinking all night with his need to cover an early morning shift on the radio.)
Hesseman’s sitcom work didn’t stop after WKRP In Cincinnati, as he also had a regular role as Sam Royer at the end of the original One Day At A Time, played teacher Charlie Moore on Head Of The Class, and returning to Johnny Fever a few times for The New WKRP In Cincinnati in the ‘90s. His acting career also never really slowed down, with Hesseman showing up more recently in That ‘70s Show, House, Boston Legal, John From Cincinnati, Lie To Me, Chicago Med, and Fresh Off The Boat.