In Memoriam: Howard Hesseman (1940-2022)

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.

Interview with Actor Keith Coogan By Jesse Striewski

Chances are if you grew up in the late ’80s/early ’90s such as myself, you remember actor Keith Coogan. Not only did he appear in numerous commercials (his first acting job was a spot for McDonnald’s), and popular shows on TV at the time such as Knight Rider and Silver Spoons, he was also lucky enough to work alongside two of the most memorable bombshells of their time, Elizabeth Shue in 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting, and Christina Applegate in 1991’s Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. Recently, I was able to sit down and speak with Coogan during a candid phone conversation about these experiences, and so much more.

I instantly wanted to start at the beginning and discuss what it was like making his first movie, a voice role in the 1981 Disney film The Fox and the Hound. He told me; “Yeah, no real huge memories of that! I came from a real big showbiz family with my great-grandfather in Vaudeville, then my grandfather in silent films and television, and my mother was a comedy writer, so they knew it’s a hard way to make an easy living. And I had worked my way up through TV, doing lots of commercials and guest appearances on great shows like CHiPS, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Eight is Enough, Mork & Mindy, and Laverne & Shirley. My mom, or “momager” was the one that took me around, and almost everything with a kid in it I auditioned for. And we got a voiceover job for Disney when I was eight; it was thrilling, but really only like three or four days of work spread over months and months. And they recorded the voices singularly…it wasn’t until Robin Williams was doing Aladdin years later that they decided to bring in whoever he was doing a scene with due to his improv nature.”

He continued; “We started in ’78, and of course the hound was played by Corey Feldman, who I’ve been friends with for decades now. And then Don Bluth left the production and took a lot of animators with him, and they had to shut down before hiring new people to finish the film. And by the time it came out in ’81, I was eleven and had been doing more TV and stuff, so it was kind of an after thought like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s out’ (Laughs). I know how grateful I am to be in a Disney movie, and some say it’s their last classically-animated film before they used computers full-blown on their next production. I think it’s a terrific, sweet film, and I think it made $64 million dollars at the box office, which was a record for them at the time, too.” He added one final thought; “And despite what it says on IMDB, Kurt Russell did NOT record his dialogue wearing Snake Plissken’s jacket (Laughs).”

I also wanted to get into some of those old TV roles he took part of, starting with working with the late Robin Williams on Mork & Mindy; “Oh gosh, working with him, and Jonathan Winters, and of course the anchor holding the show down, Pam Dawber, was so great! And this was actually the last episode to ever air, and they knew they weren’t necessarily going to get picked up for another season, so the set kind of had a dire mood to it. But there was still that spark of creativity there from Williams and Winters, although Jonathan was much more on his own planet (Laughs).”

Of course I had to ask him about Silver Spoons as well; “Rick managed a rock band called Splat, which I was the keyboard player for. And they were going to go on a Star Search kind of thing before their singer got sick, and so Rick had to sing, hence the title of the episode, “Rick Sings.” It was kind of a precursor to future roles I would play, but it was more surfer rather than stoner. I also got to work with Alfonso Ribeiro and Billy Jayne, and it was a welcoming, fun set with the video games and the train, and I think I got about ten feet into the house before three guys came up to me with their satin ’80s jackets (Laughs). And all of the video games on the set had unlimited credits, so you could just walk up and play any one of them! But they didn’t typically have the train out and lying around, so there was probably a ‘no riding the train’ rule!” He went on; “But the audiences on sitcoms used to throw me off. I probably did six or seven more of them, too, including Growing Pains and Just the Ten of Us. And they always were nerve racking in front of a live audience! I remember my entrance I did for the Laverne & Shirley episode I did; I opened the door and just cracked up, so we had to re-shoot it at the end of the night (Laughs).”

And aside from sitcoms, he was also on another favorite ’80s show, the previously-mentioned Knight Rider; “That was amazing! David Hasselhoff was particularity awesome and fun to work with, and I worked with my uncle Don Stroud, who played one of the biker gang members. We shot around southern California, and one of the coolest shots we did was at Mockingbird Square, which was Clock Tower Square at Universal Studios. And the bait shop we filmed in was the diner from Back to the Future. So that was fun to not only get to shoot there, but also ride around in K.I.T.T.!”

As far as his movies go, I asked if he felt Adventures in Babysitting is the one he will always be best remembered for; “It’s entirely subjective to people, but I think for me, it’s a split between that and Don’t Tell Mom...And regarding its 2016 remake, he said; “It was the one-hundredth Disney Channel original movie, and I went to the premiere when it came out, and it was great, lots of fun! The original was stretching the PG-13 and was limited to a certain audience, whereas the G-rated version was more for a younger generation. But it rings a lot of nostalgia bells with some of the little Easter eggs in there. But still, totally different story and tone, but I loved it! And Coogan even explained a little what co-star Elizabeth Shue has been up to recently (despite not having kept in contact with her); “She was involved with a recent article on all the things you ever wanted to know about Adventures in Babysitting answered, and it’s fantastic! They cover everything from the dance scene in the beginning, to the Playboy, to “Babysitter’s Blues.”‘

I also wondered if he had kept in touch with his former Don’t Tell Mom…co-star Christina Applegate, who recently announced a MS diagnosis; “We actually spent some time running in the same circles before shooting the movie, so it was a great pleasure to get to work with her, having already known how talented she was. She’s a total professional, and it’s interesting that both of these films kind of rest these huge budgets on the shoulders of teenagers! But I know that she’s gone through a lot, but she’s a trooper, and just fantastic, and I wish her all the best…sending out good vibes to her. And as far as how close Coogan was in reality to his character Kenny in the film? He tells me; “I was a nerd, a geek, and a “Dexter” as we used to call it in middle and high school (Laughs). So I wasn’t much like my character at all, I didn’t listen to the rock music like Kenny, or the punk music like Mitch in Cousins. But director Stephen Herek was very supportive in helping me find my character. But I loved it, and there was no way I was passing up the role of Kenny.”

One thing often somewhat forgotten about Coogan are his brushes with the action genre, such as the 1991 film Toy Soldiers; “I think they wanted to forget it when it came out (laughs), meaning it did good business, but you know, nothing to write home about. But Louis Gossett, Jr., what a legend, and Denholm Elliot, another legend! I had a great cast to work with, from Sean Astin to Wil Wheaton, and Shawn Phelan who has now passed. There was also Andrew Divoff who is pretty “method,” I don’t think I saw him smile once until we were done shooting (laughs). And the late R. Lee Ermey; at this point I had already done Adventures in Babysitting with Vincent D’Onofrio from Full Metal Jacket, but now I’m working with the Gunnery Sergeant himself, so I was just over the top! But it was an interesting mix-and-match movie…basically Die Hard meets Dead Poets Society (Laughs).”

In more recent times, Coogan even appeared as himself in the 2019 Kevin Smith film Jay & Silent Bob Reboot, and I asked him to briefly tell me about the experience; “Kevin had said something interesting along the lines of, ‘before I started making movies, I watched a lot of movies.’ So he really has a soft spot for nostalgia and for anyone that came before him. And having Chris Hemsworth at the end credits say – as Thor – “The dishes are done man,” I crapped my pants a little when I first saw that! (Laughs).”

While I could continue even further with more from our hour-long conversation, I’ll end things on this note due to time (perhaps I’ll get to the rest in future pieces), but those in the New Jersey area can actually catch Coogan at the Chiller Theatre Expo in Parsippany from the 29th-31st of this month. Regarding this event he stated; “It’s their anniversary for the convention, and it’s going to be a riot and a huge blowout! A lot of great guests, cosplay, and screenings, so it should be amazing!”