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WKRP In Cincinnati Star Howard Hesseman Is Dead At 81

Howard Hesseman on WKRP in Cincinnati
(Image credit: Shout! Factory)

Howard Hesseman, the beloved character actor best known for his work on the hit sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, has sadly passed away. The veteran actor reportedly died due to complications from a colon surgery that he underwent during the summer of 2021. The TV mainstay was 81 at the time of his passing. 

The star reportedly died on Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Los Angeles. News of his death was confirmed by his representative Robbie Kass. In the statement he provided to Variety, Kass affectionately paid tribute to his client, remembering him for his talents as a performer and gentleness as a person:

Howard was a groundbreaking talent and lifelong friend whose kindness and generosity was equaled by his influence and admiration to generations of actors and improvisational comedy throughout the world.

Those sentiments are truly a beautiful way to sum up Howard Hesseman’s talents as a performer. The late actor acquired quite a few skills over the course of his career, allowing him to emerge as a bright star in the entertainment industry. And believe it or not, his journey in the business didn’t actually start on the stage.

Born on February 27, 1940 in Lebanon, Oregon, the star worked as a radio DJ in his younger years, during which he operated under the on-air alias Don Sturdy. He also served as a founding member of The Committee, an improvisational comedy group based in San Francisco. It was during this time that he ultimately emerged as an influential figure within the counterculture movement during the late ‘60s.

Howard Hesseman eventually began to truly find his way into the television landscape by securing roles in hit shows like The Andy Griffith Show, Sanford and Son and Laverne & Shirley. But his big break wouldn’t come until 1978 when he began starring on CBS sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Though the series would be cancelled by the network after two seasons, it would air two additional ones in syndication, where it became a hit. On the show, which centered on the titular radio station and its employees, Hesseman played the popular disc jockey known as Dr. Johnny Fever. The character would become a series breakout and the actor would earn two Primetime Emmy nominations for his electric performance.

After the music-infused sitcom concluded its run in 1982, the star went on to land roles on a plethora of other shows, including one of Norman Lear's classic sitcoms One Day at a Time. He’d also become famous for playing the lead in high school comedy Head of the Class for four of its five seasons. He even reprised his role as Johnny Fever for The New WKRP in Cincinnati between 1991 and 1993. Aside from his work on TV, the performer also appeared in movies like This Is Spinal Tap, About Schmidt and Halloween II.

Many TV fans will surely tell you that Howard Hesseman stands alongside some of the great names in the medium, such as the recently departed Betty White and late actor and comedian Bob Saget. Like these stars, Hesseman will be sorely missed, though his work will definitely live on for generations to come. 

We here at CinemaBlend extend our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones during this time.

Erik Swann
Erik Swann

Covering superheroes, sci-fi, comedy, and almost anything else in film and TV. I eat more pizza than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.