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Remembering 'WKRP in Cincinnati' actor Howard Hesseman

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Howard Hesseman, the actor best known for playing a radio DJ on "WKRP In Cincinnati," died Saturday in Los Angeles due to complications from colon surgery. He was 81. In the 1960s, Hesseman performed in the San Francisco improv troupe The Committee, which regularly performed at anti-war and civil rights demonstrations. He had many minor roles in film and TV, including playing a hippie on "Dragnet," before landing the part on "WKRP In Cincinnati," which aired from 1978 to 1982 on CBS. Hesseman likely drew on his experiences as a San Francisco DJ for the character of Johnny Fever.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WKRP IN CINCINNATI")

HOWARD HESSEMAN: (As Dr. Johnny Fever) All right, Cincinnati. It is time for this town to get down.

(APPLAUSE)

HESSEMAN: (As Dr. Johnny Fever) Yeah. You got Johnny, Dr. Johnny Fever. And I am burning up in here. Woo (ph).

DAVIES: Hesseman was also known for playing the teacher Charlie Moore on the sitcom "Head Of The Class," which aired from 1986 to '91, and for other roles including a brief appearance in the rock 'n' roll mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap." He played the manager of a rival band who politely blows off the members of Spinal Tap after they try to chat him up in a hotel lobby.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS SPINAL TAP")

MICHAEL MCKEAN: (As David St. Hubbins) Where are you playing in town? Are you playing here?

HESSEMAN: (As Terry Ladd) We're doing the EnormoDome, whatever it is. It's terrific. It's a good house. We sold it out.

MCKEAN: (As David St. Hubbins) Oh, yeah, big place outside of town.

HESSEMAN: (As Terry Ladd) Very nice.

MCKEAN: (As David St. Hubbins) That's a big place. You sold it out?

CHRISTOPHER GUEST: (As Nigel Tufnel) What's that - 20,000 seats?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We really should run, you know?

TONY HENDRA: (As Ian Faith) Good heavens. How are you, laddie? Great to see you, Ter - terrific to see you.

HESSEMAN: (As Terry Ladd) Liam - Liam?

HENDRA: (As Ian Faith) Ian. Ian. Yeah.

HESSEMAN: (As Terry Ladd) Listen. We'd love to stand around and chat, but we got to sit down in the lobby and wait for the limo.

HARRY SHEARER: (As Derek Smalls) OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, that's great.

SHEARER: (As Derek Smalls) OK. We'll catch up with you on the road.

(CROSSTALK)

PAUL SHORTINO: (As Duke Fame) Great to see you again, Terry.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Cheers.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yeah, best of luck.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Duke.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We'll catch up at my house, maybe.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Great, great - great to see you.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) See you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Good days, good days.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) See you, Duke.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) See you.

MCKEAN: (As David St. Hubbins) [Expletive] wanker.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What a wanker.

MCKEAN: (As David St. Hubbins) A wanker with no talent.

DAVIES: And in an episode of the TV series "ER," Hesseman played a man high on drugs found in the middle of the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ER")

JOE MANGANIELLO: (As Officer Litchman) Found him sitting in the middle of the street directing traffic.

HESSEMAN: (As Dr. James Broderick) Well, I was just trying to calm the masses. There was so much negative energy. Nobody could feel that universal connection that we all have.

JOHN STAMOS: (As Tony Gates) Right, right, right. What are you on, buddy? What are you on? What are you on? What are you on?

HESSEMAN: (As Dr. James Broderick) No, no. You know, when I touch you like this, we are exchanging matter on a subatomic particle.

STAMOS: (As Tony Gates) Right. Well, I don't know where your atoms have been, so it's best you just keep them to yourself.

SCOTT GRIMES: (As Archie Morris) What's this?

LINDA CARDELLINI: (As Samantha Taggart) I'm thinking acid trip.

HESSEMAN: (As Dr. James Broderick) Oh, you would be wrong. LSD is a man-made chemical, and psilocybin is a gift from God.

GRIMES: (As Archie Morris) Oh, the magic of mushrooms.

HESSEMAN: (As Dr. James Broderick) Yes, that is (laughter)...

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Howard Hesseman in 1988, when he was starring in the sitcom "Head Of The Class."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: You know, "Head Of The Class" is, in a way, a reversal of the type of school shows that television had on, say, in the 1960s 'cause in this case, the students are the overachievers, and you, as the teacher, is the one who's trying to loosen them up a little bit.

HESSEMAN: I guess - yeah, that's accurate.

GROSS: But yet you're the authority figure, which most TV viewers aren't used to seeing you as.

HESSEMAN: Well, I guess they're not. I don't - I'm not used to seeing myself that way. But, you know, when you say it's sort of a reversal of the '60s, so are the '80s, in a sickening sense - a reversal of the '60s in which, you know, nobody wants to take responsibility for much of anything but they want all the rewards and accoutrements of a responsible life. Thus, the planet is sort of (laughter) slowly dying off.

GROSS: When...

HESSEMAN: At least, that's my sort of pinhead view this morning.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What are the parts of the character that you think of as yours, character dimensions that you added that weren't in the way the character was initially conceived?

HESSEMAN: Well, in television, particularly where everything is done in such a - I don't want to say a shorthand manner but a short-cut manner, actors have a - actors sort of are the character. It's not as though you're given a well-delineated character that's been tried and tested over a period of time like, you know, stage characters or someone who's a character that's had the benefit of a long period of development - of gestation and development in the writer's mind. The character is created, and once it's sold, there is this enormous rush to make things work in a very tight time schedule with as tight a budget as possible.

I mean, some of these things are certainly true in movies and in stage work as well. But I think more and more, because of the voracious appetite of television as a medium, writers depend on personality quirks of the actor to delineate character. And in the long run, my feeling as an actor is that there is no character. There's me, and I am limited by what this character says and does according to the text.

GROSS: Were you anxious to get back into TV after...

HESSEMAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: No - after "One Day At A Time" and after "WKRP"?

HESSEMAN: No, I don't think I was ever anxious to get into TV. Even now, on an almost daily basis, there's a certain sense of, oh, to quote a friend, "joyful dread" each morning. You know, I like to work. I like the actor's work. I love doing it. But there is something about television and particularly series production that saps me of the will to live.

GROSS: (Laughter) But other than that, it's great. Where does the - in the joyful dread, what's the dread part of the equation?

HESSEMAN: Well, most of television is so predictable. I mean, that's not limited to television, either. I mean, a great deal - a great many stage plays that we see now and a great many movies are so predictable in terms of the plot, in terms of the action, in terms of what little character revelation and delineation occurs. You know where they're going. You're not surprised. And I suppose, you know, I have these standards that are relatively impossible for me or anyone else to meet (laughter) in part because I can't define them. So - but I'm just, for the most part, disappointed when I look at television, particularly network television.

GROSS: Do you find that television viewers' preconceptions of you vary according to who you're playing on TV? You know, when you were Johnny Fever, did they think of you as being a high - someone who was always high and a real, you know, anti-authority kind of figure? Then when you were on "One Day At A Time" as someone who was going to marry Bonnie Franklin (laughter) and now as the teacher in "Head Of The Class" - do people have a different idea of who you are based on who you're playing?

HESSEMAN: Absolutely. It's - sometimes I think of it as sort of quaint, and sometimes it's terrifying. But many people's seeming inability to differentiate between a character that you're playing on television and who you really are. Of course, this flies in the face of what I was saying eight, 10 minutes ago about, in television, the actor sort of becomes the character. Or some facet of the actor is exaggerated and becomes a key element of the character. But I also feel as though that's a problem that exists largely for those people and not for me.

GROSS: But what are some of the different ways people have seen you, different preconceptions people have had on you - had about you, depending on which role you've been playing at the time?

HESSEMAN: Well, it was very strange. During the production of WKRP, we had extraordinary support from the radio broadcast industry, far more so than CBS TV.

(LAUGHTER)

HESSEMAN: Thanks to radio, people knew that we were being bounced around the schedule like a Ping-Pong ball for the entire four years. Radio people really followed the show and let their listeners know about it. And at the same time, radio people were very quick to talk about inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the studio setting of the show. And, you know, the only defense that one can offer is, we're not doing a show about how radio works. We're doing a show about a group of people who happen to work together at a radio station.

There is this poetic license that we're taking. But in terms of a specific character - ask me a question, I can babble forever. In terms of the character, yeah, people thought I was really loose, that I was always looking to get loaded, that I was some kind of a party animal on my last legs. But I was going to go down, you know, at full-tilt boogie speed. Hardly true. That had happened years before.

GROSS: (Laughter) Who did you pattern the disc jockey on who you play? Did you have an image in mind?

HESSEMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: I know you were a disc jockey for a really brief period of time, around six months.

HESSEMAN: I was. And I welcomed this opportunity to say this on radio. Repeatedly, in talking with print interviewers, I would try to stress the fact that I had been a professional actor for several years prior to my brief and humiliating stint...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HESSEMAN: ...As a radio (laughter) personality. I put quotes around that.

GROSS: What was humiliating about it?

HESSEMAN: Well, I think when you're doing radio, you like to feel that people are listening and enjoying what they hear.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HESSEMAN: And in my case, what little feedback occurred indicated to me that wasn't necessarily the case.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HESSEMAN: But it was great fun. And I patterned Fever after my sense of myself as a disc jockey, but just with a little more - with a sufficient degree of success that was invisible to me. I mean, I thought, this guy is better than he thinks he is. He's really committed to doing a good job. But he's messed up in a number of times along the way. But he's still good because of his commitment. Beyond that, there were a number of radio personalities who were good friends of mine in San Francisco in the '60s. And I think little bits and pieces of them would float through Fever from time to time, sort of little ghost visits. The late Tom Donahue - "Big Daddy" Tom Donahue was sort of the father of progressive rock 'n' roll radio in America, was a close friend. His wife, Raechel, is a terrific radio personality. There were any number of - just little elements of different people would occur to me.

DAVIES: Howard Hesseman speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACK AND FIELD'S "LEAVING FOR COSMOS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to Terry's 1988 interview with actor Howard Hesseman. Hesseman died Saturday at the age of 81.

GROSS: Did you have a hippie image when you first started acting?

HESSEMAN: Well, when I first started acting?

GROSS: Yeah.

HESSEMAN: No, I was in the second grade.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HESSEMAN: Actually, I think I probably actually started acting when I was about 3 years old. I was trying to act normal.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HESSEMAN: But I became a professional actor in San Francisco with a committee, an improvisational - satirical, political, improvisational review company in 1965. And I looked fairly normal - I wasn't inside.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HESSEMAN: But I think I had just done a play, so I'd cut my hair. I looked sort of straight, kind of square, as we used to say. And that changed as the years went by. But I would come up with a role that would (laughter) force me to cut my hair. Yeah. Yes. I wore a lot of tie-dye and bright, velvet English trousers and patchwork boots. And as often as not, my hair was longer than my neck.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. In the film "Steelyard Blues," made in 1973 - Donald Sutherland, Peter Boyle, John Savage - they play the misfits. They play the outsiders. And you play the suit. You play the establishment.

HESSEMAN: I have photographs of myself taken the day before I cut my hair to get the look of that character.

GROSS: Oh.

HESSEMAN: And the film, incidentally, was made in 1971...

GROSS: Oh, OK.

HESSEMAN: ...I believe - '70 or '71 and released about a year later. But let's put it this way. I had hair that was close to between my shoulder blades and a long moustache. And I took all that off and discovered within the first week that none of my clothing worked any longer.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HESSEMAN: When I was on the street - I can't really tell this story on the radio because it's not going to carry very well.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HESSEMAN: But basically, people who normally would have, you know, winked or given me a high sign or something in a surreptitious manner...

GROSS: Sort of passed you a joint or something.

HESSEMAN: Yeah. Basically, people - many of us at that point in time walked with our eyes pretty much toward the ground for fear of tripping and meeting the ground suddenly face first. And when you saw somebody, you know, you kind of traveled up over the ankle bone, the knee bone, the thigh bone, up and checked out their face, and then it was just random head, eye, neck movements from there. And I would discover people coming up, and at about chest level, they were still smiling. And then they would see this haircut. It would get all different. They would - there was a willful attempt to avert their eyes. And I got very quickly, probably within two or three days, that I appeared to be either on leave from boot camp or an incredibly crude undercover agent. And it was time to go buy some new clothes because this, you know, rock 'n' roll drag didn't work anymore.

GROSS: Well, speaking of undercover agents, didn't you once sell an ounce of grass to an undercover agent in the early '60s?

HESSEMAN: He begged me. He begged me endlessly. That's all I can say. The man was destitute. I knew he was an undercover agent, but just as a human being - and perhaps you had to be in San Francisco in 1963 to understand this - I wanted to help him. Now...

GROSS: Well - yeah.

HESSEMAN: ...It was two ounces. And in fact, at the preliminary hearing in San Francisco County Court, there was only one ounce offered in evidence. You draw your own conclusions.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, I see what you're saying. Now, you know what they always say about how things are going to affect your later career. You got a three-year sentence for this, which was suspended, but you had to serve 90 days in prison. Did this...

HESSEMAN: That was before it was hip to be arrested for drugs.

GROSS: Well, did this ever interfere with your acting career? Did you ever have to fill out an application there or anywhere else that said have you ever been arrested?

HESSEMAN: No. I filled out many of those. I served my probationary period. In fact, I had three years of probation, and at the end of two years, my probation officer recommended and the court wisely saw fit to terminate my probation since I'd clearly turned into an upstanding citizen and was doing my best to ridicule every holy institution in the western world six nights a week on stage. But I was making a living, so I fit in somehow.

Having your record expunged, at least in California, means that you can legally answer the question, have you ever been convicted of a felony, no. I think what it really means is that they cross out your name somewhere in the files, but it's still clear that you were once convicted of a felony, but that you can legally say you weren't. It's never been any real problem for me. The committee was not the sort of theater group that would look upon me with disdain for that sort of activity.

GROSS: Right.

HESSEMAN: In fact, whether I did that or not was of little consequence to them.

GROSS: Are you ever surprised when you wake up in the morning that you have started...

HESSEMAN: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's not what I meant - but that you who got started on The Committee satirizing everything ended up a TV star.

HESSEMAN: Yeah. I (laughter) - yes, I've turned into one of my own targets, but many of us have been saying that for a long time. We became the people we used to satirize. It's terrifying to consider. And then on the other hand, you could say, well, of course, I was young when I did all that. It's all changed. Now my values are different. I don't - some of them are; some of them aren't. If none of them changed, I would assume that, you know, I was the victim of some real - what do I want to say? - arrested development and I don't think that's the case.

DAVIES: Howard Hesseman speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Hesseman died Saturday. He was 81. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Norwegian film "The Worst Person In The World." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "HEWBIE STEPS OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.