Howard Hesseman, Actor and 'WKRP' DJ, Dead at 81

Howard Hesseman as Dr. Johnny Fever on 'WKRP in Cincinnati'
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CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Howard Hesseman, the actor who fired up TV audiences in the late '70s and early '80s as disc jockey Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati, died Saturday (Jan. 29). He was 81 years old.

Manager Robbie Kass confirmed the news to CNN, stating Hesseman had died after complications from colon surgery. "He was a groundbreaking talent and lifelong friend and longtime client, whose kindness and generosity was equaled by his influence and admiration to generations of actors and improvisational comedy throughout the world," Kass wrote in an e-mail to the network.

Hesseman, a television veteran who made recurring appearances on The Bob Newhart Show and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, helped CBS' pilot to WKRP in Cincinnati come alive as the disco-hating, ex-hippie rock jock Fever. (Hesseman had some real-life experience as a jockey for San Francisco station KMPX-FM.) Entering the program as Johnny Caravella, a burned-out morning DJ, he reluctantly accepts program director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy)'s request to come aboard as a cornerstone of the station's new rock-oriented format. Scraping a needle across a gospel record, "Dr. Johnny Fever" launched into an impassioned (and improvised) intro before cranking up the volume on a Ted Nugent record. (The series famously would use portions of actual rock songs, later making a DVD release a nightmare of legal clearances.)

READ MORE: September 1978: The First Episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati" Debuts on CBS

Hesseman, as Fever, was also responsible for throwing to a live broadcast by nerdy newscaster Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) at a shopping center on Thanksgiving Day, marked by an infamous, unseen "turkey drop" on unsuspecting shoppers from a station helicopter. The 1978 incident is considered one of the funniest moments in sitcom history.

READ MORE: 1978: "WKRP in Cincinnati" Airs Thanksgiving "Turkey Drop" Episode

For his performance, Hesseman was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1980 and 1981. The series ended a year later after a myriad of timeslot changes caused the series to suffer in the ratings. Hesseman would make appearances on television for the rest of his life, performing in Head of the Class, Boston Legal, ER, That '70s Show, CSI and more. He also made a cameo as a manager in the iconic 1984 mockumentary This is Spial Tap. Hesseman did return as Johnny Fever for 10 episodes of a sequel show, The New WKRP in Cincinnati, which ran from 1991 to 1993.

He is survived by his wife, actress Caroline Ducrocq, whom he married in 1989.

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