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 ItMagazine, 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.
For several weeks, actress Khrystyne Haje and I had been playing a game of back-and-forth before our schedules finally aligned right for a phone conversation. And as soon as I got her on the phone, I knew it was worth the wait. Almost instantly, it felt as though I had been transported back to being that same 9-year-old kid who would tune in every week to watch her play Simone Foster on Head of theClass (one of my personal favorite TV shows at the time, which originally aired from 1986 to 1991) and developed one of my very first, and very real (albeit innocent) celebrity crushes. Since the show, Haje has gone on to do numerous acting, voiceover, and various humanitarian work. But with Head of theClass about to turn thirty-five this year, I focused heavily on the show that originally put her on the map.
Early on in our conversation, Haje gave me some insight into just what it was like growing up and simultaneously going to high school in real life, while also doing so on the small screen. She explained; “It was such a life-changer when I got the role! I had been working as an actress prior, and was an emancipated minor, so I was one of the only people on the show going to ‘real’ high school (at North Hollywood High), and what I called ‘fantasy school’ (laughs). It has just created so many opportunities for me since though, and what I consider some life-long friendships.”
Although I may have never been part of an honors class like the students on the show, I always admired the sense of camaraderie that the characters seemed to share together, something Haje informed me still exists with many of her former cast mates to this day; “Kimberly Russell (Sarah on the show) is still one of my best friends in the world. I was also super close with Dan Schneider (Dennis) – we actually met at a call back, and became friends instantly. Dan Frischman (Arvid) and I are forever friends; I lived in New York for a couple of years, and he moved there not long after I first did, so that was really fun having him there. Lara Piper (who joined the cast later as Viki) and I are still close as well. And Tony O’Dell (Alan)…I used to stop doing my homework to watch him on the show Otherworld, so when I saw him at the very first table read, I just couldn’t believe it! (laughs). But I still probably talk to him and Kimberly the most, a couple of times a month, if not more.”
Knowing that previously-mentioned former co-star O’Dell had recently appeared on the hit Netflix series Cobra Kai, I was curious to hear Haje’s thoughts on The Karate Kid revival show. She reveled; “Even though it was ‘super secret’ at the time, I was SO excited when he went to film Cobra Kai! And because of Tony, I actually got to meet the Cobra Kai guys back in the day! It was so fun randomly getting to hang out with William Zapka or Martin Kove back then, and I’m so happy for all of them right now!”
Of course I had to ask what it was like working with such a legend as Howard Hesseman as well; “I was a BIG fan of WKRP in Cincinnati! And at one of my final call backs, I actually got to read with Howard, and was just so starstruck! But I thought, ‘well, even if I don’t get the role, at least I got to read with Dr. Johnny Fever!’ (laughs). I always admired Howard’s work though, 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.”
Towards the end of the show’s run, Hesseman left to be replaced by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. I asked Haje what it was like still being on the show after such a drastic change, and she told me; “Billy just showed up with a huge heart, ready for the adventure. It was different, because his approach was different. And there were definitely some shifts as far as the writing went – at the time, it seemed like the writers were leaning on his stand up comedy skills, as they should have. I was personally grateful to get the opportunity to work with Billy and see what that was like. He was just so kind, and already had had such huge life experiences, with so many stories to tell about all of his U.K. adventures that were so different from anything else to any of us at the time!”
Aside from Head of the Class, Haje has also made appearances on such other iconic shows as the ’80s juggernaut Growing Pains, and the quirky, oft-forgotten Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. I asked Haje how these experiences were in comparison to working on Head of theClass, and she explained; “When your job is to make somebody laugh, you only have good days! Growing Pains was a similar style to Head of the Class, in that it was a five camera sitcom. And I knew the kids, we kind of all grew up together at Warner Bros., so the environment was very familiar, and very family-esque. Parker Lewis on the other hand was a single-camera show, so it was shot very differently, and the approach was different and ahead of it’s time. But I was already a big fan of the show, so it just felt surreal to drop in and get to be on it, and to be able to maneuver those different techniques and skills, too.”
There’s also been some talk of a Head of the Class reboot, which of course I had to inquire about. Haje informed me; “I have heard about a reboot! It looks like HBO Max, who’s airing the original series, is also working on a reboot, and they want to flip the script a little bit. So I think they want to have a young, female teacher, with possibly younger, middle school-aged students – though I’m not entirely sure. But they definitely have – let’s call it a re-imagination – of Head of the Class brewing, and it would be fun if they had us guest star in some way! I think that fans of the original always love to see what the original cast is doing, but we really have no idea right now what they’re looking to do exactly at this point. We all loved that show so much though, so it’d be fun to revisit that world officially. It’s going to be great no matter what though!”