The Heart-Wrenching Death Of Howard Hesseman

On January 29, 2022, actor Howard Hesseman, best known for his roles on TV's "WKRP in Cincinnati" and "Head of the Class," has died, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 81. His wife, Caroline Ducrocq, told the outlet he died from complications following a colon surgery he had several months ago.  

Tributes began pouring in as people remembered the veteran actor with fondness. Laraine Newman, an original "Saturday Night Live" cast member, was one of the first to post a response on Twitter. "RIP Howard Hessman [sic]," she tweeted. "What great times we had. Great laughs and fun going to see Etta James in Manhattan Beach and Joe Tex at The Parisian Room. Staying at your beautiful house in Ramatuellle. Oh god this hurts."

A forward-thinking countercultural icon and TV cult figure

Howard Hesseman rose to prominence as an actor in the 1970s and '80s with standout roles as the DJ Johnny Fever on "WKRP in Cincinnati" (1978-1982) and teacher Charlie Moore on "Head of the Class" (1986-1990), both of which Hesseman imbued with his own forward-thinking, open-minded demeanor. CBS executives, he stated in a 1979 interview with The New York Times, were terrified of Johnny Fever's "countercultural aspects," a trait shared by Hesseman, who favored the legalization of marijuana even back then. Nonetheless, both the man and his character became bonafide cult figures, and  "WKRP in Cincinnati" went on to tackle "some sophisticated issues" like unexpected mid-life pregnancy. 

Similarly, "Head of the Class" was ahead of its time by normalizing a class of gifted students and social introverts through the guise of a wholesome, school-based sitcom — at least at first. Hesseman became just as well-known for leaving "Head of the Class" as he was for playing on it, because "We're not doing the show that I was led to believe I'd do," as he said to the Chicago Tribune back in 1989. "I do feel that the educational arena is one that offers a variety of story ideas as a means of investigating our lives," continuing, "We could do all that with considerable humor, not with jokes, but with genuine humor that comes out of character and situations ... We're in our ninth year of a Republican administration. Life is depressing enough."

An unconventional soul with an unconventional career

Born in 1940 in Lebanon, Oregon, Hesseman was the son of a seamstress (his mother disliked the term "housewife," per the Orlando Sentinel) who later married Hesseman's stepfather, who was chief of his town's four-person police force (per The Washington Post). Hesseman grew up asthmatic and averse to physical activity. He turned his energies toward the arts, got attracted to theater in high school, and became involved in drama clubs and writing poetry while attending the University of Oregon. One of his professors suggested that he drop out of school to pursue acting directly, rather than through academia, stating that all he would learn was "how to teach acting to other people who would wind up teaching others." 

At 21, Hesseman moved to San Francisco, found work as a bartender at the Coffee Gallery, and eventually transformed the locale into a hub of local music and artists. By 24, without any particular direction for his future, Hesseman got involved with a political satire improv group called The Committee and started picking up small roles in television and theater up and down the Californian coast. Around this time he also worked as a DJ at KMPX, one of the area's "first underground rock stations," under the pseudonym "Don Sturdy." He wound up bringing this experience, and his true-to-life time spent in the hippie movement doing "a lot of in-depth research through pharmaceutical experiments in recreational chemistry," to his character Johnny Fever on "WKRP in Cincinnati."

A private person satisfied with his marriage and career

Besides his most famous TV roles, Hesseman had a regular, active career through his middle and late life, with spots on shows such as "That '70s Show" (2001), "House" (2006), "Boston Legal" (2006-2007), and more, per IMDb. He also played in a number of made-for-TV movies going all the way back to the early 1970s. Per The Washington Post, he remembered his time in The Committee improv group very fondly, saying, "It clearly offered an opportunity to voice one's feelings, or vent one's rage. I still find it to be one of my most creative periods." Of "WKRP in Cincinnati" he stated, "I'm rather pleased. I like that character. It was a fulfilling period in my life. I do like what I was doing when I was on that show." He said of his time on "Head of the Class," "I have all the fun of teaching without actually doing it. That's what I love about acting," continuing, "I'm a relatively impatient person. I am in awe of those who teach."

A private person, Hesseman quoted Humphrey Bogart when speaking of his personal life, saying, "The only thing an actor owes his public is a good performance." He married his third wife, French actress Caroline Ducrocq, in 1989, and remained married to her until his death. Hesseman split much of his time between Paris and New York.