In its first season WKRP in Cincinnati never quite caught on. Like its top deejay, "Johnny Fever" (whose rock jock career foundered after he uttered the word "booger" on the air), WKRP was even dropped for a while by CBS. But what a difference a year and a new time slot make: By this fall the fictional Ohio radio station has wormed itself into the hearts of viewers almost as successfully as the old WJM-TV newsroom in Minneapolis. Indeed, WKRP is also an MTM Enterprises production and has its very own special chemistry. Which is not necessarily an allusion to the "secret formula" that turned brunet beauty pageant champion Loni Anderson into WKRP's irresistible blond receptionist or to the experience with undisclosed pharmaceuticals which has gone into Howard Hesseman's psychedelic performance as Johnny Fever.
It is no surprise to fans in San Francisco that Hesseman, 39, ad-libs all of Fever's deejay patter, picks the records and suggests his own funky "Air Morocco baggage handler" wardrobe. After all, Howard was an "on-air fool" himself for the Bay Area's pioneering underground station, KMPX, in 1967, playing "strange tapes" from the acid-rock movement, shilling for water-beds and smoking "a lot of pot—always against my will, of course." (He did 90 days in jail in 1963 for selling an ounce of marijuana—a conviction that was later expunged for entrapment.) So if CBS censors are "frightened about the counterculture aspects of Johnny," says Hesseman, well, so be it.
Though he favors decriminalization of marijuana, he adds, "I learned my lesson. I have a fair share of friends who are dead—or as close as you can get and still be considered for disability payments." A little "mild chemical derangement" is a kick, he claims, but as a steady diet it's "crippling." His only current addiction is "space gruel," nourishing fruit drinks he blenderizes in lieu of lunch on the set. He notes that in the 36 taping weeks to date he's never dined "with the group." Not that he doesn't like the gang. "I don't think you have to make your relatives into friends," he observes. The cast has grown accustomed to his space. "There's no animosity behind it," shrugs executive producer Hugh Wilson, a Hesseman fan for years. "During breaks, he's just gone."
Howard theorizes that he's meant to be a loner. But even after two failed marriages (one short tour at 20 with a college pal and nine years—only 2½ together—with a jeweler-cum-belly dancer ending in 74), he admits: "Given the pattern, it seems more probable than not that I will marry again." For the past three years he has been unsuccessfully wooing a public relations woman whom "I have pointedly not identified." They neither live together nor date exclusively. "She insists we have nothing in common, and I keep telling her I'm willing to fake it," he sighs. "It's a highly experimental program with very deep roots and a lot of dead romanticism as fertilizer. She makes me very, very happy with very little effort on her part. Perhaps she'll read this and ask me to marry her."
Born in Salem, Oreg., Howard was an asthmatic only child, close to his mother and policeman stepfather. (His parents divorced when he was 5, and he doesn't remember much about his late father.) An uncle in Colorado, Logan Forster, introduced him to acting. "Every time I perform, it's like repaying him a debt," says Hesseman. He quit the University of Oregon for San Francisco and the stage. There, under the assumed name Don Sturdy ("It was kind of a joke"), he joined the Committee, an improve group that also nurtured the likes of Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall. By 1974 so many parts came his way that he relocated to L.A. His credits, pre-WKRP, include a score of series, TV movies (Howard, the Amazing Mr. Hughes; The Ghost of Flight 401) and films from Billy Jack to Mel Brooks' Silent Movie.
Next month he will appear as a carney roustabout in the Steve Martin movie The Jerk, and his business manager says that it's time to move from his rented Hollywood bungalow (down the street from the earlier pad he took over from migrant avocado workers) to a place of his own. "Real estate is all Urdu to me," Hesseman groans of the L.A. lingua franca. "We have become the people we used to satirize." Pals like his old acting idol Ned Beatty, Stockard Channing, writer-footballer Pete (North Dallas Forty) Gent and ex-Committee members pop in at all hours. An admitted "thread head," Hesseman collects clothing, oriental rugs and "a wide range of strange"—including painted lampshades and Mexican artifacts. He likes venturesome travel (raft trips in Idaho, scuba diving in Mexico) and contributes to the usual run of liberal causes (anti-nukes, whale-saving, Gray Panthers). But his world view is more mystical than political: "Whatever is not a mystery in life is pure guesswork." Hesseman adds, "I have trouble with the word 'star.' I have more money than I know what to do with—and less than I need to fund a study to tell me what to do with it." He wants "the satisfaction that I gave it my best shot and gave a few laughs and had a few," he signs off. "Because if you can't laugh—whew—that means you've built your own little concentration camp."
Loni Anderson is sweet, sexy—and super savvy
Three and a half years ago, when gaga-eyed Loni Anderson was turned down for Suzanne Somers' role on Three's Company, her manager paled. Not Loni. "I wasn't interested in doing any dumb blondes," she explains. Now she herself has sold more posters than Somers ("I wanted to do it before all the cheesecake falls apart") and has become TV's guest star of the year as Suzanne was in 1978—without playing dumb. "On WKRP she doesn't use sex to get people to do what she wants," says Hesseman. "Rather, she lets people volunteer to do what she wants because of what they fantasize about her. Come to think of it, she does that in real life, too."
These days men off the street accost her with lines like "I suppose marriage is out of the question?" But Loni (rhymes with bonny) is more mommy, at 33, than Mata Hari. She bakes cakes for her co-stars and listens to their problems. "It's sort of like queueing up for the psychiatrist," says Gary Sandy, who plays WKRP's nice-guy program manager. "She's a sensitive, kind, caring lady—and a hell of an actress." Loni laughs, "I'm real quiet on the outside and inside I'm an emotional hurricane."
It doesn't help that the flurry of attention—this week she straddles the networks, co-hosting an NBC Candid Camera special and appearing on an ABC prime-time Family Feud—came just as Loni had gained professional and personal stability. A first marriage (to the first man she ever slept with) at 18 lasted only three months before separation but produced Deidra, now 14. Afterward Loni fought commitment until, in 1974, she met "someone I wanted to drag off into the woods," a fellow actor in a Chicago production of Play It Again Sam, Ross Bickell, now 32. They married and went to Hollywood to make their fortunes.
That she made hers (reportedly $12,000 weekly) while Bickell was turned down for Gary Sandy's WKRP role couldn't have been easy, but Loni protests: "People ask him 'How are you doing?' like he has a disease or something. He's doing very well." He does TV guest spots (including one WKRP segment last month), plenty of commercials and has become Loni's business manager. A gourmet chef, Bickell also does much of the cooking. "Buying food, going to the laundry or drugstore are out of my program," says Loni. "To be honest, I don't miss them."
She has worked steadily for 14 years. The child of a housewife and a wealthy St. Paul chemist, Loni was a typical teenager until she "discovered boys. My father was not pleased—the ones who liked me all seemed to have long hair and motorcycles." When she sued for divorce, Anderson remembers, "The judge told me that pregnant women were too emotional to be granted a divorce; that made me rather emotional." Her parents let her and Deidra move back home, but said she had to put herself through college. "It was the greatest gift they could have ever given me—my independence," she says now in retrospect. "I learned how to make it on my own." After graduating in art education from the University of Minnesota, she taught ("My goodness, little teenage boys didn't act like that when I was in high school") and acted. A Miss Minnesota runner-up, she supported herself with beauty contests ("Miss No Frost Eskimo, Queen of the Hole-in-One," she giggles) between roles.
Now that she has made it in a different league altogether, Loni, Ross and Deidra are leaving their North Hollywood pad for a three-fireplace "dream house" in Sherman Oaks. "We'll move in at Christmas," she bubbles. "It's our present from Santa." The family's closeness shows in their custom of toasting each other at every meal, but the pressures of celebrity are everywhere. Fans even sneak up to peak in the windows. Not that Loni would change anything. "People tell me I'll get tired of the recognition," she says, "but I can tell you, it's a lot nicer than obscurity."