By: Jesse Striewski
I wasn’t around in the ’70s, so my first impression of actor Howard Hesseman did not come from the hit TV show WKRP in Cincinnati as it had for many before, but instead the ’80s high school sitcom Head of the Class. As a kid at the time with four older brothers and sisters, all mostly high school aged by then, it was easy for me to fall in love with the show and relate to its characters, who I was able to equate to my older siblings. And it was just as easy for me to picture Hesseman’s portrayal of Charlie Moore as someone who could have just as easily been a teacher of mine as well.
Originally a native of Oregon, he rose to prominence in the ’60s as a member of the improv comedy troupe The Committee, as well as an underground DJ for a San Francisco-based radio station, a job that would no doubt help shape his eventual iconic role as Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP. By 1968, he landed acting gigs in his first film Petulia, and first TV show, a memorable appearance on the hit police show Dragnet.
Throughout the ’70s, he continued to make notable appearances on such classic shows as Sanford and Son, Laverne and Shirley, and The Bob Newhart show, before eventually landing the career-changing role on WKRP in 1978, a job that would keep him occupied until 1982. By the ’80s he was appearing in such big name films such as Clue (1985) and, one of my personal favorite films of all time, 1984’s This is Spinal Tap.
Hesseman also appeared in what would eventually become my favorite Police Academy film (something I would even relay to series producer Paul Maslansky when I spoke to him last year for Rewind It Magazine), 1985’s Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, before landing the Head of the Class role the following year in 1986 (which would last until 1990).
When I also spoke to actress and Head of the Class co-star Khrystyne Haje last year for Rewind It Magazine, she had nothing but praise when it came to her time working with Hesseman, stating; “I always admired Howard’s work, and he became just such a mentor to us all. He’s not only a gifted actor, but he’s also a great comedic actor, and was a great example to me as well. He was really invested in the character he played, and it was an honor to get to work with him.”
Hesseman continued acting well into his 70s, both revisiting his role as Dr. Johnny Fever again on The New WKRP in Cincinnati in the early ’90s, and replicating it via several appearances on That ’70s Show in 2001. His last television appearance was on a 2017 episode of the ABC comedy Fresh off the Boat. He passed away just two days ago on January 29 due to complications from colon surgery. He left behind a wife of 33 years, Caroline Ducrocq, and a void in the entertainment world like few others. He will be missed dearly by many for years to come.