by Curtis Lanclos
Just a few days ago, on January 29, 2022, American actor Howard Hesseman passed away at the age of 81. Born on February 27, 1940, Hesseman had a fairly impressive stint in supporting roles during the first 10 years of his acting career from 1968 – 1978. In addition to short-lived recurring roles on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and The Bob Newhart Show, he had one-off guest appearances on many other TV shows and appeared in 17 motion pictures.
However, Hesseman’s breakthrough role began on September 18, 1978 when he first appeared as burned out disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever on the brand new TV sitcom WKRP in Cinncinnati. Interestingly, this show was created by American director and writer Hugh Wilson, and was largely based upon his experiences working in advertising sales at a Top 40 radio station in my hometown of Atlanta, GA; WQXI 94Q. Hesseman prepared for this role by working San Francisco’s KMPX-FM as a DJ for several months. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1980 and 1981 for his portrayal of Fever. The show lasted for 4 seasons (90 episodes).
Seemingly breaking free of any typecasting curse, Hesseman moved on to the very successful lead role of honors history teacher Charlie Moore on the ABC TV Sitcom Head of the Class from 1986-1990 (for 96 episodes). From there, he continued to have a very successful career on both TV and on the big screen. To me, however, Hesseman will always be John Caravella aka Johnny Fever (he reprised the role in nine episodes of The New WKRP in Cincinnati, and also directed several episodes of the 1991-93 series revival).
I even paid tribute to the character at 80s in the Sand 2017; although outside of the Black Death Malt Liquor t-shirt and Johnny Fever coffee cup (which I eventually gave to the late Tawny Kitaen in 2019 since she was a regular on The New WKRP in Cinncinnati), I inadvertently looked more like Ron Burgundy or Dick Butkus (LOL)…
There are so many great episodes of WKRP in Cinncinnati; however, my favorite has to be S1E7 Thanksgiving episode entitled “Turkeys Away.” On this episode, Arthur Carlson (played by the late, great Gordon Jump) who runs WKRP which is owned by his wealthy, domineering mother, decides to launch a Thanksgiving promotion for the station. This involves dropping 20 live turkeys on a busy shopping center parking lot from a helicopter which sports a banner reading “Happy Thanksgiving from WKRP.” Dr. Fever reports on the air about the catastrophic results: “Thanks for that on-the-spot report, Les. For those who just tuned in, the Pinedale Shopping Mall has just been bombed with live turkeys.”
Interestingly, when this episode first aired on October 30, 1978, it contained a scene with Dr. Fever and Mr. Carlson which was cut very short in syndication and on the VHS/DVD releases of the show. This was due to the use of a clip of the Pink Floyd song “Dogs” (from their tenth studio album, ANIMALS). The showmakers had the right to use this song when the episode first aired, but could not retain the rights for subsequent distributions of the episode. So, the scene was trimmed a bit to exclude the conversation between Fever and Carlson, and “Dogs” was replaced with a royalty-free facsimile of it. This kind of thing actually happened in several episodes of the show.
However, someone did us the tremendous service of uploading the original Pink Floyd “Dogs” scene from “Turkeys Away” to YouTube (it’s very amusing)…
Coincidentally, on the RetroZest Podcast, we recently celebrated the 45th Anniversary of Pink Floyd’s ANIMALS LP on Episode #88. I was joined by Kevin Williams and Robert Harrison of the InObscuria Podcast, and we included this WKRP clip on the episode when we discussed the song “Dogs” (we recorded the show just before Hesseman’s untimely passing). For your convenience, here is a player for that episode…
RIP Howard Hesseman. Thank you so much for leaving us with the memorable character of Dr. Johnny Fever.