Every Thanksgiving, I have to watch “Turkeys Away.” It’s just not Thanksgiving—honestly a holiday I don’t care a ton about—without Mystery Science Theater 3000 and WKRP in Cincinnati. You’ve got your traditions, and I’ve got mine. Now, that isn’t a particularly Johnny Fever-centered episode. He’s there, of course, and he gets some funny bits, but it’s the episode that focuses on the Boring Characters, and Johnny Fever was many things but never boring. Interestingly, he had also years before actually been a DJ, so he came by his skill at the role by personal experience.
It turns out Howard Hesseman had an absolutely fascinating life that until today I knew nothing about. He was, early in his career, a DJ. As established. But he went by the name “Don Sturdy,” the name by which he appeared in Billy Jack and a couple of other movies, and on The Andy Griffith Show and Dragnet. He is also credited as “The Committee” on a few things. This was the improv group he founded with David Ogden Stiers. They—minus Stiers, I’d note—appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. All this means that Hesseman had pretty solid counterculture credit, too.
Including sleeping with Janis Joplin, it turns out. They were good friends; no one mentions this, but it wouldn’t surprise me to know that he’s one of the people who attended the party her will provided for so her friends could celebrate her memory. I mean, that is simply wild. I don’t want to talk a lot about who people are sleeping with, but it’s more that this is something wild about Howard Hesseman that makes Johnny Fever a whole lot more real. Because let’s face it, it’s not difficult to picture Johnny Fever hanging out with Janis Joplin, is it?
After WKRP, my favourite of his projects is Head of the Class. Apparently he didn’t think it gave enough attention to the real issues in education, or something like that, but as a gifted child, I connected with that show and am less than thrilled to discover that it had an absolutely toxic person as a major character. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that one of my own beloved teachers from high school had a few similarities with Charlie Moore—not sleeping with Janis Joplin, though I’m sure she wouldn’t say no to the idea, but certainly the passion and compassion that characterized him.
And, of course, as a child, I saw him in the theatre playing Dr. Louis Faraday. As an adult, I have some problems with how Flight of the Navigator portrayed NASA, I grant you. But honestly you could argue that Faraday has Mr. Moore’s passion without his compassion. Dr. Faraday really, really wants to know what the deal is with that alien spacecraft and what the deal is with David Freeman, and he forgets that David is a person. There’s no forgetting that Howard Hesseman was a person, and a person we will miss.