For TV watchers of a certain age, the name Howard Hesseman might conjure an aerial shot of the Ohio River from the opening of WKRP in Cincinnati, or the river of humanity that is rush-hour Manhattan on Head of the Class. But a place on the Willamette River played a key role in the life of the longtime actor, who died January 29 in Los Angeles at age 81, following complications from colon surgery.
It was in Eugene at the University of Oregon that Hesseman, who was born in Lebanon and grew up mostly in Silverton, ended up acting in his first theater production, and turned out to like it so much he decided to leave. "I split to San Francisco on my motorscooter with my first bride and 80 pounds of luggage," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1986.
He did pass back through Eugene, including to see a ’90s-era college theater performance featuring a family friend. One performer in Coup/Clucks, Jane Martin’s Gone with the Wind–inspired satirical double bill, recalls peering out at the audience from backstage with her fellow cast members, all remarking that Hesseman wasn’t cracking a smile. The experience inspired a future student production called Howard Hesseman Isn’t Laughing, an avant-garde work that had nothing to do with Howard Hesseman.
In San Francisco in the 1960s, Hesseman worked as a DJ and landed in an improv collective called the Committee, the comedy DNA of which would show up in The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Jerk, and Saturday Night Live.
Both the DJing and the comedy would come in handy in the late ’70s, when he landed the role of WKRP’s Dr. Johnny Fever, the hippie iconoclast DJ whose trademark sunglasses were assumed to be hiding a hangover or a continued high. (See Johnny Fever be born in the clip below.) In 1986, he took the starring role on the high school sitcom Head of the Class, as the ponytailed, trench-coat-wearing history, social studies, and life lessons teacher to a motley crew of highly gifted students (who put on a few school stage performances of their own).
In addition to the shows he starred in, he was a frequent player on One Day at a Time, Soap, The Bob Newhart Show, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and made cameos on everything from Murder She Wrote to Psych to Mike & Molly. Hesseman appeared on the big screen in This Is Spinal Tap!, Clue, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, Ruben & Ed, About Schmidt, and more.
Other Hollywood figures who went to the University of Oregon include Portland-born Kaitlin Olson (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Hacks), Klamath Falls–raised James Ivory (the director of many E. M. Forster film adaptations with producer and partner Ismail Merchant, Ivory, now 93, won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Call Me By Your Name), and Hesseman contemporary David Ogden Stiers, who would also pass through San Francisco and the Committee on his way to TV fame on MASH. Stiers died at his home in Newport in 2018.