Howard Hesseman, who is remembered for his Emmy Award-nominated role as DJ “Dr. Johnny Fever” Caravella on 1978-82 sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, died Saturday of complications from the colon surgery he had last summer. He was 81.
Born February 27, 1940 in Lebanon, Oregon, Hesseman was a founding member of the San Francisco-based improvisational comedy troupe The Committee with eventual MASH star David Ogden Stiers. Early in his acting career, he used the alias Don Sturdy, the name he also used as a radio DJ.
Hesseman made his television debut with two small guest roles on the final season of The Andy Griffith Show in 1968. That same year he appeared in five episodes of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. After building up a roster of guest roles on other TV series like dramas The Blue Knight, Harry O, Family, Switch and Baretta; and comedies Rhoda, Sanford and Son, and Laverne & Shirley, he made multiple appearances on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, The Bob Newhart Show and Soap.
Hesseman’s big break, of course, came as aforementioned Dr. Johnny Fever courtesy of the critically-acclaimed WKRP in Cincinnati, which resulted in Emmy nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Variety or Music Series in 1980 and 1981, respectively. The series aired for four seasons.
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Immediately following WKRP in Cincinnati was the recurring role as Sam Royer on the final two seasons of the original One Day at a Time as the father of Barbara’s (Valerie Bertinelli) husband Mark (Boyd Gaines), who ends up marrying Barbara’s mother Ann (Bonnie Franklin). He also hosted NBC’s Saturday Night Live three times – in 1979, 1982 and 1983, respectively.
In 1986, Hesseman debuted as teacher Charlie Moore on ABC’s Head of the Class, and remained with the series through 1990 – one season short of its conclusion. Unfortunately, Hesseman came to loathe the high school-set comedy, telling a reporter in 1989 that it was a “disposable frivolity,” and he was “not doing the show he was led to believe.”
One year later he reprised his role as “Dr. Johnny Fever” in 10 episodes of the two-season reboot The New WKRP in Cincinnati (from 1991 to 1993).
In film, Hesseman had several credits including This Is Spinal Tap, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, About Schmidt, Wild Oats, All About Steve and Halloween II.
Later in his career, Hesseman was back on the TV guest roster circuit, with appearances in series like Family Law, Touched By an Angel, That ‘70s Show, Boston Legal, CSI, House, Psych, Chicago Med and, most recently, Fresh Off the Boat in 2017. His final role was as “Big Oil” in film Dirty Politics in 2018.
Wrote original Saturday Night Live star Laraine Newman on Twitter: “RIP Howard Hessman. What great times we had. Great laughs and fun going to see Etta James in Manhattan Beach and Joe Tex at The Parisian Room. Staying at your beautiful house in Ramatuellle. Oh god this hurts.”