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Howard Hesseman, star of 'WKRP in Cincinnati,' dies at 81

A staple of '80s comedy television, Hesseman played Dr. Johnny Fever on “WKRP in Cincinnati" and Mr. Moore on "Head of the Class."

Beloved improvisation comedian and Emmy-nominated actor Howard Hesseman, best known for his role in "WKRP in Cincinnati," died following surgery Saturday afternoon.

Hesseman, 81, died of complications from colon surgery, manager Robbie Kass confirmed to NBC News in a statement Sunday. He added that Hesseman will be "sorely missed and always treasured."

"He was a groundbreaking talent & life long friend and long time client, whose kindness and generosity was equaled by his influence and admiration to generations of actors and improvisational comedy throughout the world," Kass said.

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A staple of '80s comedy television, Hesseman played Dr. Johnny Fever in "WKRP in Cincinnati" from 1978 to 1982. He was nominated for the 1980 and 1981 Emmy for outstanding supporting actor for his portrayal of Fever, a disc jockey who was canned from his job in Los Angeles and pushed to work at a radio station in the Midwest.

The role made Hesseman a counterculture icon at a time when few hippie characters made it onto network television.

Howard Hesseman in ABC's "Head of the Class."
Howard Hesseman in ABC's "Head of the Class."ABC via Getty Images file

“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 as he readied for one of three “Saturday Night Live” hosting gigs. “And on one of those hard mornings at the station, he might take what for many years was referred to as a diet pill. But he is a moderate user of soft drugs, specifically marijuana.”

Hesseman then went on to play Mr. Moore in another '80s sitcom, "Head of the Class," which ran on ABC for five seasons. Moore was an out-of-work actor who went on teach as a substitute at Millard Fillmore High School in New York City but stayed on after connecting with the students.

Howard Hesseman stars as 'Dr. Johnny Fever' Caravella in 'WKRP in Cincinnati.'
Howard Hesseman as "Dr. Johnny Fever" Caravella in "WKRP in Cincinnati."CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

During the '60s, before Hesseman was a silver screen regular, his improvisational skills took stage in San Francisco, where he was part of the improv group The Committee. He also did his own stint as a real-life radio DJ.

Actor and comedian Michael McKean offered a public tribute Sunday on Twitter, recalling his first time seeing Hesseman in 1971 with The Committee.

"Impossible to overstate Howard Hesseman’s influence on his and subsequent generations of improvisors," McKean wrote. "The first time I saw him on stage (Troubadour, ’71, with The Committee) I saw that he was the real deal."

Other notable credits for Hesseman include roles in "This is Spinal Tap," "One Day at a Time" and "The Bob Newhart Show."