Wednesday, May 29, 2024

RIP Howard Hesseman, aka Johnny Fever, the Coolest DJ Ever from “WKRP in Cincinnatti,” Also “Spinal Tap,” “Mary Hartman”


Howard Hesseman has died at age 81. The popular actor played Dr Johnny Fever, ace anti-authoritarian deejay at “WKRP in Cincinnatti” for 90 episodes in the late 70s and early 80s. Hesseman was sasfely subversive comic, not quite Martin Mull, and just shy of “Saturday Night Live”‘s Not for Prime Time Players. He had his own niche, and every one of his appearances was welcome and memorable. Before he was on “WKRP,” Hesseman was on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” making him cool way before everyone else (just like Martin Mull and Fred Willard).

Laraine Newman, of the original “SNL” cast,” wrote 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.”

Michael McKean, who starred with Hesseman in “This is Spinal Tap,” wrote on Twitter: “Impossible to overstate Howard Hesseman’s influence on his and subsequent generations of improvisors. The first time I saw him on stage (Troubadour, ’71, with The Committee) I saw that he was the real deal. He was a friend for 50 years. Howard’s character in Spinal Tap didn’t even exist until 24 hours before the shoot: we’d discovered that the musician we’d hired to play Duke Fame couldn’t improvise, so Rob said let’s give him a manager. I’ll call Howard. He blitzed it, of course. We’d go years without seeing each other (Howard and Caroline lived mostly in Europe) but when we did, he’d hilariously fill me in on the great music, dumb show biz and silly-ass humans he’d encountered. RIP Don Sturdy.”

“WKRP” had a lot of heart and wit, which is why it’s remembered so fondly now. Of course, it was produced by MTM and came from the Mary Tyler Moore world of characters over punchlines.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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