R.I.P. and Happy Birthday, Howard Hesseman

“Happy birthday, Howard Hesseman” — sounds like the title of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, doesn’t it? Mr. Hesseman (1940-2022) passed away a month ago, but it happened during a seemingly unprecedented cluster of celebrity deaths and other scheduled posts here on Travalanche, so rather than do an on-the-spot obit, I opted to wait ’til today, the date of his birth.

Most of us naturally associate Hesseman with his greatest role, Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82), which we wrote about here. So convincing was he in that role that it hardly seemed a performance. The character had levels. After all, it was 1978. Hesseman was pushing 40 then and looked his age. So, while Fever was a rock and roll DJ, generally thought of as a young man’s racket, you got more of a feeling that he was a old veteran of the countercultural wars. He’d seen a thing or two. And taken a drug or two. That feeling was reinforced by the tinted shades and five o’clock shadow, which indicated that he’d always been “up late last night”, that his eyes were bloodshot, and he was either on something now or coming down off something and he was only hanging on by dint of the mud in his omnipresent coffee cup. “Burnout” is the descriptive if unkind shorthand we typically use for such characters.

It was delightful to subsequently learn that Hesseman was so good in the part because it was something like stunt casting. Under the alias “Don Sturdy” he had been a DJ at underground San Francisco radio station KMPX during the ’60s. He was also a key member of the San Francisco branch of the improv comedy company The Committee, along with Peter Bonerz (later of The Bob Newhart Show), Carl Gottlieb (of the Jaws movies), David Ogden Stiers (of M*A*S*H), et al. This was when San Francisco was the scene of much artistic, cultural, social and political ferment. The Committee was part of a larger scene that included The Grateful Dead, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Diggers, etc. Ramparts magazine was published in their basement. At one point the company produced America Hurrah and worked with its playwright Jean-Claude Van Itallie and Joe Chaikin of The Open Theatre and LaMama.

Around the turn of the decade, Hesseman and other core members of The Committee started a Los Angeles branch of the company, and this is when various members made inroads into film and television. Several Committee Members are in the 1971 film Billy Jack; Steelyard Blues (1973), which featured Hesseman, was directed by Committee founder Alan Myerson. You can see Hesseman playing hippies or hippie-adjacent characters in the movies Petulia (1968), The Feminist and the Fuzz (1971), Cisco Pike (1972), Kid Blue (1973, a western, but come on , it stars Dennis Hopper), and Shampoo (1975), and in episodes of TV shows like Dragnet and The Blue Knight.

Hesseman wasn’t always cast as hippies though. Another sort of role he was very good in was uptight squares in the Nixonian vein, no doubt a major factor in the comedy sketches of his early years. He played such roles before and after WKRP. An early one, before we knew who he was, or would be, was (believe it or not) in The Sunshine Boys (1975), as a commercial producer who keeps yelling at Walter Matthau because he can’t remember his lines. Another was in the 1992 TV movie Quiet Killer a.k.a. Black Death, a pandemic disaster thriller that was ahead of the curve as it preceded Outbreak, Contagion and both versions of Stephen King’s The Stand. (A timely theme, eh?) Hesseman played an asshole Congressman (spoiler alert: he gets his just desserts).

As a member of his generation of countercultural improv comedians Hesseman was in a long list of modern comedy classics and non-classics, including Tunnel Vision (1976), Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976), The Big Bus (1976), Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979), Private Lessons (1981), Dan Aykroyd’s Doctor Detroit (1983), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Clue (1985), Police Academy 2 (1985), and Amazon Women on the Moon (1987).

Hesseman was also constantly on sitcoms for nearly two decades with recurring roles on The Bob Newhart Show (1974-78) and Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (1976-78), a recurring part on Soap (1978), his regular stint on WKRP (1978-82), a recurring on One Day at a Time (1982-84), the starring part on Head of the Class (1986-90, a kind on inversion of Welcome Back Kotter), and then a recurring reprise of Johnny Fever on The New WKRP in Cincinnati (1991-93).

Hesseman had over 150 screen credits. Some other interesting stuff included roles in tv movie versions of You Can’t Take It With You (1978) and Mister Roberts (1984). As a fan of trashy TV movies, I can recommend Call Me Anna (1990, Patty Duke’s autobiographical bio-pic) and Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story (1991). Thanks to my old buddy Jason Robert Bell for letting me know about cult classic Rubin and Ed (1992) which pairs Hesseman with Crispin Glover (and Karen Black). It’s not streaming at the moment but there are many clips on Youtube, including the trailer. It’s rapidly shaping up to be one of my favorite movies and I haven’t even watched it yet. The auteur behind it is Trent Harris.

More recent Hesseman credits have included roles in About Schmidt (2002), Halloween II (2009), Bigfoot (2012) and Wild Oats (2016). Howard Hesseman’s last screen credit was in 2018.

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