Howard Hesseman passed away Saturday, due to complications from a surgery. He was 81. His career spanned many decades, but he’s probably known vest for his role as Dr. Johnny Fever, the counter-culture DJ on WKRP in Cincinnati which ran from 1978 through 1982. Howard Hesseman received two Emmy nominations for his work as Dr. Johnny Fever, playing what appeared to be an constantly inebriated crazy DJ, who nonetheless transformed into an amazingly competent and interesting DJ when he got in front of the mike.
In the late 70’s, I had a good friend who knew a lot of people in the music and movie production fields. At that time, I had just got my BA degree in Film Production and was trying to break into post production sound in Hollywood. I had known plenty of industry people for several years and so I was comfortable treating them as I did any of my other friends rather than fawning over them. Through my good friend Buddy, I wound up in a circle that included at times, David L. Lander (Squiggy on Laverne and Shirley, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Donald Sutherland (Dirty Dozen, M*A*S*H*, Animal House, The Hunger Games); and Garry Goodrow (Escape from Alcatraz, Dirty Dancing and many writing and TV guest appearance credits).
At that time, Howard was riding high as Dr. Johnny Fever. Among us, though, he was just a nice, unassuming guy who enjoyed relaxing with friends. Many times our get togethers were at Howard’s house in the Hollywood Hills, a nice smaller home that was certainly not ostentatious. He was a very down to earth, friendly guy; and interesting to talk to. Sometimes we’d talk about work, or some of the guest spots on shows like Head of the Class and One Day at a Time and even Dragnet. Howard also had some choice movie roles in productions like Dr. Detroit and This Is Spinal Tap.
Time went on and eventually I got my first job at a sound studio. Working early mornings, plus night and graveyard shifts, cut out what little social life I had. On top of that, I bought my first house—a nice place in Simi Valley where I could indulge in my own movie pleasures. I could look out the windows or sit on my patio; and look at the same mountains used in many movies. That was the location that Republic Pictures used (watch any old John Wayne movie, especially the Three Mesquiteers) and also the location of Corriganville, the home of many more iconic views and famous movies, including John Ford’s Fort Apache, The Robe and the Lone Ranger. Plenty of early TV was filmed there; from Sky King to Star Trek. In those years though, the most recognizable view out my front porch were the sparse trees on the hill in the opening credits of Little House on the Prarie.
It did change many things though, especially with my social life. It was a long drive from Simi Valley to Hollywood. It was no longer an easy jaunt to my place like it had been before. It was certainly not a ‘stop on the way home for a quick visit’ like it had been when I was just another 10 minutes away. By the early 90’s my career had climbed to the point that I was working on many of the ‘A-List-Pictures’, but it was also such that I really had no time for any friends. I drifted away from them as well as many others I had hung out with. But I’ve always remembered those days, though—not because of who these people were in their careers, but just a group of friends who enjoyed interesting conversations—sometimes about the roles they played, but also sometimes about where to fine the best al pastor burrito in East Hollywood or just talking about the beauty that is the Marin headlands in Northern California.
I haven’t seen that group in a long time, as with much of our modern social life, people drift in and out of it as lives and locations change. But I do remember those times and especially with people that didn’t stand on ceremony. Going over to a visit at Howard’s house was a casual affair and he was a casual guy. Howard Hesseman was not a persona. Talking to him; and any of these guys, was more just like I used to have with other friends—hanging out with the neighbors. Consequently, I don’t remember him for some specific conversation. Instead, I just remember him like a neighbor who would ask if I wanted cream in my coffee, or put a ‘bucket’ of cold beers on the table. When it comes down to it, that was more important to me over the years than virtually anything else.
RIP, Howard Hesseman. You did some great acting, but my favorite role I remember you as was just being yourself.