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Howard Hesseman, ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ and more, Dead at 81

Howard Hesseman, the actor and comedian who starred as DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati and Charlie Moore on Head of the Class, has died at the age of 81.

Hesseman’s wife Caroline Ducrocq confirmed his death to the Hollywood Reporter, adding he died Saturday at a Los Angeles hospital from complications from colon cancer.

A member of the legendary San Francisco improv group the Committee and a real-life disc jockey who hit airwaves under the name Don Sturdy, Hesseman broke into acting in 1968 with a bit part on Dragnet; after spending the first half of the decade with one-off appearances on dozens of TV shows and small roles in movies, Hesseman first landed a 13-episode part on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman before scoring his breakout role, the lewd, anti-disco DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on the Seventies sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, about a struggling Top 40 radio station.

The cult sitcom ran for four season from 1978 to 1982; soon after, Hesseman hopped onto another permanent gig, portraying out-of-work actor-turned-teacher on another beloved sitcom, Head of the Class, with Hesseman spending four seasons in that role.

On the big screen, Hesseman notably appeared in films like Flight of the NavigatorCluePolice Academy 2, the Bill Murray comedy Loose Shoes and as the manager Terry Ladd in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.

“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,” Michael McKean, who appeared alongside Hesseman in Clue and Spinal Taptweeted Saturday.

“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.”

In addition to his acting roles, Hesseman returned to his comedy roots by serving as host of Saturday Night Live on three occasions.

Daniel Kreps/Rolling Stone

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