Johnny Fever Signs Off For The Final Time

Actor Howard Hesseman passes away at age 81

Howard Hesseman RIP (Image: Twitter)

Howard Hesseman, who died due to complications of colon surgery in Los Angeles on January 29, at age 81, was the essential counter cultural icon.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

His status was confirmed several times over, but no more so than when playing the character he’s eternally known for, Johnny Fever on the hit network TV series WKRP in Cincinnati. The fact that it wasn’t much of a stretch for the former real-life, droopy-eyed San Francisco deejay (who broadcast under the air name “Don Sturdy”), only affirmed the fact that it was an astute portrayal, one that epitomized every stoner and slacker that took to the airwaves while using their  microphones to give voice to their insurgent attitudes. 

Likewise, having spent his early years in San Francisco as a founding member of the improvisation comedy collective known as The Committee, he became an integral part of the cultural fabric of that iconic community, while further ingraining his influence in the budding underground that took shape in the late 1960s.

Once he got his acting chops together, Hesseman made early incursions into television, playing minor roles on such seminal series as Dragnet (which found him acting the role of a hippie who edited an underground newspaper), The Andy Griffith Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Boston Legal, Laverne and Shirley, The Rockford Files and House. Later, after his stint on WKRP in Cincinnati, he went on to land recurring roles in Head of the Class, That ‘70s Show, CSI Crime Scene Investigation, One Day at a Time and The New WKRP in Cincinnati.

In addition, he hosted Saturday Night Live three times, once when he took the opportunity to eulogize the late John Belushi, and another time when he triumphantly mooned a portrait of then-president Ronald Reagan.


VIDEO: Howard Hesseman on SNL

It could never be said that Hesseman didn’t put his feelings on full display whenever he had the opportunity. 

He also attained a string of stage and big screen appearances — most notably, a part in the scarcely exaggerated “rockumentary” Spinal Tap —  mostly playing outcasts and eccentrics that were consistently left-of-center.

“Howard’s character in Spinal Tap didn’t even exist until 24 hours before the shoot,” co-star Michael McKean posted on Twitter. “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.”

Nevertheless, it was the Fever character for which he’ll always be mostly remembered. It was little surprise that he was twice nominated for an Emmy Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1980 and 1981. It was his stoner facade and ongoing rants against what he considered the absolute scourge of disco that made him the true personification of every outspoken, closet drug-taking, seemingly off-kilter radio renegade that inhabited the airwaves from small town America to the biggest major markets.

(I personally can attest to that fact. As radio promoter for Capitol Records in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I saw any number of characters that shared the common connection to the Fever character. Hesseman’s portrayal was spot on.)

“I think maybe Johnny smokes a little marijuana, drinks beer and wine, and maybe a little hard liquor,” Hesseman admitted when interviewed by 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.”

That said, those who knew him best could testify torte fact he wasn’t class clown he pretended to be.

“Howard was eloquent…stylish…and hilarious,” said Loni Anderson, Hesseman’s friend of 40 years and co-star”co-star. “My favorite Howard sign-off…a quote by Louis Armstrong…‘Jazz is what you are.’ And now Howard, forever missed is just what you are.”


VIDEO: Johnny Fever Takes Control 



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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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