Howard Hesseman, one of TV’s first hippie-archetype character actors, has died. He was 81. According to his manager, Hesseman died Saturday in Los Angeles due to complications from colon surgery. Hesseman performed improv in San Francisco, while also moonlighting as a radio DJ. It was this dual background he channeled to play Johnny Fever on CBS sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Hesseman was one of the first onscreen depictions of a countercultural figure, and far more sympathetic than the Maynard G. Krebs types that preceded him. “I think maybe Johnny smokes a little marijuana, drinks beer and wine, and maybe a little hard liquor,” Hesseman told the New York Times in 1979. “The network, needless to say, is terrified about that element … But by no means am I advocating drug use. I understand the fears. I have a fair share of friends who are dead because of drugs, or close to it. I just think the fears are overblown.”
Hesseman was a member of San Francisco improv group the Committee, performing on The Dick Cavett Show and inspiring generations of improv comedians that followed. His loss was mourned by the likes of Groundling and Saturday Night Live alum Laraine Newman, Spinal Tap star Michael McKean, and Household Faces podcast host John Ross Bowie.