Howard Hesseman, ‘WKRP,’ ‘Head of the Class’ Star, Dies at 81

Howard Hesseman, known to TV fans as Dr. Johnny Fever and teacher Charlie Moore, died Saturday, January 29, at 81.

With Khrystyne Haje (b. 1968) on Head of the Class (Image via ABC)

His wife, Caroline Ducrocq, confirmed his death, from complications arising after colon surgery in 2021, to THR.

Laraine Newman broke the news. (Image via Twitter)

Born in Lebanon, Oregon, on February 27, 1940, in Lebanon, Oregon, Hesseman moved to San Francisco and, with David Ogden Stiers (1942-2018), founded the influential improv troupe The Committee.

First credited as Don Sturdy and then as Howard Hessman before settling on his given name, he often played hippie types.

Soul lessons from Mel Stewart (1929-2002)

He made his TV debut on The Andy Griffith Show (1968) and Dragnet (1968).

Fever-esque on the fuzz for Dragnet

Though Hesseman appeared in quite a few feature films, including Petulia (1968), Where It's At (1969), Billy Jack (1971), Cisco Pike (1971), Shampoo (1975), Silent Movie (1976), Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985), Flight of the Navigator (1986), and Halloween II (2009), it was TV that made him famous.

Parodying polyester in 1973

He made six appearances as Craig Plager on The Bob Newhart Show (1974-1978), a character with writer's block who was later identified as gay.

On The Bob Newhart Show (Image via CBS)

He went on to guest spots on Rhoda (1974), Mannix (1975), Family (1976), Baretta (1976) and Laverne & Shirley (1976) among them. He also played Dr. Robert Williams on the cult classic TV series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-1977) and was well-remembered for a recurring role on the similarly out-there spoof Soap (1978).

Longtime pal Michael McKean eulogized him warmly. (Image via Twitter)

Soap directly led to his most famous role, as disco-loathing DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982), when Jay Sandrich (1932-2021) suggested him as a replacement for last-second drop-out Richard Libertini (1933-2016). Hesseman's Fever was a pop cultural anti-establishment icon — he'd been fired from his previous radio gig for saying "booger" on the air — leading to two Emmy nominations.

"What do you take me for, some kind of Pat Boone clone?"

He reprised the role on The New WKRP in Cincinnati (1991-1993).

Hesseman was also classic as Terry Ladd in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and as teacher Charlie Moore on the sitcom Head of the Class (1986-1990).

Hesseman on mooning the President

Hesseman hosted SNL three times. Most shockingly, he paid tribute to his late friend John Belushi (1949-1982) on the show in a controversial monologue in 1982. After joking that Belushi, who'd died of a cocaine overdose, might've lived had he only said, "No Coke, Pepsi" — a line Belushi made famous on the show — Hesseman closed with, “The clock is ticking. We’ll all be joining Belushi soon enough. So if any of this has offended some of you, fine. I think John would have wanted it that way. And John, man, if any of this has offended you, pal, we’ll get together. We’ll talk.”

With Newman

Hesseman worked steadily until 2018, including playing the husband of Bonnie Franklin's Ann Romano character for two seasons (1982-1984) on One Day at a Time and appearing on three episodes of That '70s Show (2001), three episodes of Boston Legal (2006-2007), and two episodes of Fresh Off the Boat (2017). He was very active in the theater.

He is survived by his wife of more than 30 years, Caroline Ducrocq.

Hesseman at the Hollywood Show in 2013 (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

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