Johnny Fever Put Counterculture in WKRP

List of TV roles includes Charlie Moore on 'Head of the Class'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 30, 2022 1:20 PM CST
Johnny Fever Put Counterculture in WKRP
Howard Hesseman arrives at an event in Los Angeles in 2013.   (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

(Newser) – Howard Hesseman, who played radio disc jockey Johnny Fever on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati and actor-turned-history teacher Charlie Moore on Head of the Class, has died. He was 81. Hesseman died Saturday in Los Angeles due to complications from colon surgery, his manager said Sunday. Hesseman, who had been a radio DJ in the 1960s, earned two Emmy nominations for his work on CBS' WKRP, which ran from 1978 to '82. The role made Hesseman a counterculture icon at a time when network television featured few hippie characters, the AP reports. "Impossible to overstate Howard Hesseman's influence on his and subsequent generations of improvisors," Michael McKean posted Sunday.

"I think maybe Johnny smokes a little marijuana, drinks beer and wine, and maybe a little hard liquor," Hesseman told the New York Times in 1979. "And on one of those hard mornings at the station, he might take what for many years was referred to as a diet pill. But he is a moderate user of soft drugs, specifically marijuana." Hesseman knew the territory. He said he once served 90 days in the San Francisco County Jail for selling an ounce of marijuana, though the conviction was reversed for entrapment. In 1983, per the Hollywood Reporter, Hesseman conceded that he'd conducted "pharmaceutical experiments in recreational chemistry."

Hesseman grew up in Lebanon, Oregon, and attended the University of Oregon before moving to San Francisco, where he was a DJ for KMPX, an underground rock station. He joined the Committee, an improv group, appearing with other members in the 1971 film Billy Jack. Hesseman also had roles in Shampoo, the Sunshine Boys, and the Other Side of Midnight. His many TV roles included Boston Legal and That ’70s Show; his character married Bonnie Franklin's on One Day at a Time, per the Wrap. When introduced to the station manager—and the show's viewers—in the WKRP pilot, Hesseman's character was said to be Johnny Caravella. "I'm also known as Johnny Midnight, Johnny Cool, Johnny Duke, Johnny Style, and Johnny Sunshine," Hesseman said. (Read more obituary stories.)

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