‘WKRP’ star Howard Hesseman mourned by Loni Anderson: ‘I’m devastated and heartbroken’

Loni Anderson is mourning the loss of her pal and cast mate.

Howard Hesseman, who played radio DJ Dr. Johnny Fever on the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” passed away on Saturday in Los Angeles due to complications from colon surgery. His manager Robbie Kass confirmed the 81-year-old’s death on Sunday.

“I’m devastated and heartbroken,” Anderson told Fox News. “The warmth and depth of our 40-year friendship only grew stronger with each decade.”

“Howard was eloquent…stylish…and hilarious,” the actress shared. “I loved getting his erudite ‘Dear Lady Loni’ emails. My favorite Howard sign-off…a quote by Louis Armstrong…’Jazz is what you are.’ And now Howard, forever missed is just what you are.”


"The warmth and depth of our 40-year friendship only grew stronger with each decade," Loni Anderson said of Howard Hesseman.

“The warmth and depth of our 40-year friendship only grew stronger with each decade,” Loni Anderson said of Howard Hesseman.
(Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc.)

The sitcom, which chronicled the misadventures of a radio station in Ohio, aired from 1978 until 1982.

In June, the close-knit cast suffered the loss of Frank Bonner. The actor passed away “peacefully” at age 79 amid a battle with Lewy body dementia.

“Frank Bonner was like family,” the actress told Fox News at the time. “He was one of the funniest and nicest men I worked with. I am heartbroken.”

Hesseman, who had himself been a radio DJ in the ‘60s, earned two Emmy nominations for playing Johnny Fever on CBS’ “WKRP.” The role made Hesseman a counterculture icon at a time when few hippie characters made it onto network television.


Actors Loni Anderson and Howard Hesseman on the set of "WKRP in Cincinnati."

Actors Loni Anderson and Howard Hesseman on the set of “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
(Tony Korody/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

In the first episode, Dr. Johnny Fever announces the station’s changeover from elevator music to rock ’n’ roll with a record scratch and a proclamation.

“All right Cincinnati, it’s time for this town to get down! You got Johnny, Dr. Johnny Fever, and I am burning up in here. We’re all in critical condition, babies, but you can tell me where it hurts because I got the healing prescription here from the big KRP musical medicine cabinet. Now, I am talking about your 50,000-watt intensive care unit, babies!”

In 1979, Hesseman told The New York Times that the character made network executives nervous. In one episode, Johnny Fever is given an on-air sobriety test after being given alcohol, only his reaction time keeps improving.

“I think maybe Johnny smokes a little marijuana, drinks beer and wine, and maybe a little hard liquor,” Hesseman said at the time. “And on one of those hard mornings at the station, he might take what for many years was referred to as a diet pill. But he is a moderate user of soft drugs, specifically marijuana.”


The "WKRP" cast recently endured the loss of Frank Bonner.

The “WKRP” cast recently endured the loss of Frank Bonner.
(CBS via Getty Images)

Hesseman played a hippie in one of his first roles, on “Dragnet,” in 1967, and also in the 1968 Richard Lester film “Petulia.” Born in Lebanon, Oregon, Hesseman wasn’t so disconnected from some of the characters he played. In 1983, he told People magazine that he had conducted “pharmaceutical experiments in recreational chemistry.” In 1963, he was jailed in San Francisco for selling marijuana.

Initially performing under the name Don Sturdy, Hesseman started as a member of the San Francisco improv group The Committee, which regularly performed at antiwar and civil rights protests.

At the time, he also moonlighted on Saturdays as the disk jockey for the San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll station KMPX. Later on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” Hesseman often ad-libbed his on-air banter.

“Impossible to overstate Howard Hesseman’s influence on his and subsequent generations of improvisers,” said the actor and comedian Michael McKean on Twitter. He recalled first seeing Hesseman in 1971 with The Committee. “I saw that he was the real deal.”


Howard Hesseman famously played Dr. Johnny Fever.

Howard Hesseman famously played Dr. Johnny Fever.
(CBS via Getty Images)

Hesseman appeared briefly but memorably with McKean in the 1984 rockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” as Terry Ladd, manager to the rock superstar Duke Fame. He frankly ends a conversation: “We’d love to stay and chat, but we’re going to sit in the lobby and wait for the limo.”

In the ABC sitcom “Head of the Class,” which debuted in 1986, Hesseman played a teacher to a diverse group of students in a classroom where the dialogue was often notably progressive in the 1980s of Ronald Reagan. Hesseman was sometimes critical of the show – co-created by political activist and writer Michael Elias – not being as adventurous as he had hoped. He departed it after four seasons and was replaced by Billy Connolly in the fifth and final season.

“Part of me says, ‘Is that all there is? A television series?’ Obviously not. I could go on stage or scratch my way into the movies,” Hesseman said in a 1989 interview. “But how many movies are made that you want to be a part of? And how many want you? There is a certain kind of ‘for-rent’ sign on my forehead. I’m an actor and I like to work.”


Howard Hesseman is survived by his wife.

Howard Hesseman is survived by his wife.
(Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

A prolific character actor, Hesseman’s credits also included “The Andy Griffith Show,” “One Day at a Time,” “The Rockford Files,” “Laverne and Shirley” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” More recently, he made appearances on “That 70′s Show,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “House” and “Boston Legal.” Films included “Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment,” “About Schmidt,” “This Is Spinal Tap” and “The Rocker.”

Hesseman is survived by actor and acting teacher Caroline Ducrocq, his wife.

Fox News’ Tyler McCarthy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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