Once a Druggie, He Nearly Flunked Out, but a Reformed Howard Hesseman Goes Straight to the Head of the Class

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Somewhere in the labyrinth of the Burbank Studios, Howard Hesseman is standing at the edge of the harsh light that bathes the Head of the Class set. The new ABC series, one of the most highly praised comedies of this or any season, features Hesseman as a struggling actor who falls back on teaching to pay the bills. But the balding, 6', 175-lb. star is wearing a suit so chic that one suspects Don Johnson's was delivered to his dressing room by mistake—that somewhere in Miami, even now, Johnson is wondering why he's stuck in a faded leather-patched jacket and a pair of tattered Levis.

Like his wardrobe, Hesseman is a walking contradiction. Cantankerous, yet likable. Philosophical, but flip. Hip, but socially inept. A droopy-eyed sad sack who radiates appeal. A streetwise guy who did time for selling pot, but who can tell Giorgio Armani clothes just by touch. A self-tortured neurotic (he sees two shrinks on a regular basis) who has become strangely well adjusted. "I have real insecurities. I have moments of near paralyzing fear. I have concerns about whether people like me," says Hesseman, "but I've learned to live with it all." In fact, he adds, apparently to his surprise, "Life is real good."

Indeed, at 46, Hesseman says he's the happiest he's ever been. Though he badmouths Hollywood ("It's pretty transparent; it's not the glamour capital of the world"), he is justifiably proud of his three top-rated series: WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82), One Day at a Time (1983-1984) and now Class, in which as Charlie Moore he manages to teach a class of gifted high school students some valuable lessons about life. The role was created especially for him. "We never seriously considered another actor," says co-executive producer Michael Elias. "Howard has a kind of humanity and sense of humor that's crucial to the role, especially when he's relating to the kids." Rich Eustis, the show's other head producer, sees a lot of similarity between Hesseman and the character—"a definite '60s-through-'80s sensibility. We wouldn't ask Charlie do to anything Howard wouldn't do."

That leaves a wide berth. Hesseman grew up in Salem, Ore., the only child of parents who divorced when he was 5. He has few memories of his father, an auto-parts salesman and part-time musician who died in 1954, and some unhappy memories of his stepfather, a hard-nosed cop who died in 1967. Acting became Hesseman's release. He started performing in the second grade when he made his stage debut as a radio announcer. "I sat inside a large cardboard carton that had been painted to look like a radio," he says. He stuck with drama in high school partly because his asthma ruled out sports, partly because "there were these really interesting women who seemed to be devoted to the muse. That did not escape me."

Attending the University of Oregon from 1958 to 1960, Hesseman studied theater but found little to interest him in the classroom, although he did meet his first wife, a Hawaiian-born student whom he spotted climbing the fire escape into her dorm after curfew. The couple married 10 months later, then "strapped about 80 pounds onto the back of a Lambretta 125 motor scooter and left Oregon for San Francisco." After two emotionally rocky years the marriage ended in 1962. "Very few of us are prepared for marriage at any age," reflects Hesseman, "let alone on the cusp of 21. You have such illusory expectations of what it's going to be like. It's an absolutely nut-zoid view of things."

Between 1960 and 1963 Hesseman was spending his time in various ways—as a clerk in a bookstore, a bartender in a North Beach jazz club and as a convicted felon. "These federal agents—I didn't know that's what they were—continually sought to purchase marijuana from me," he says. "Finally, as I had been introduced to them as friends of this friend of mine, I sold them an ounce, basically to get them to stop bothering me. It was a $15 transaction." The outcome of the trial? "Three years in San Quentin, suspended on the condition that I spend 90 days in the San Bruno jail." Hesseman's memories of his 1963 stint in the joint include lots of bologna sandwiches, mutton stew on Sundays and watching "the guards systematically behave in the most reprehensible fashion toward prisoners. I get a tautness in my throat just talking about it. Let's just say it made me real uncomfortable, and I'm really happy to be out of there."

Less than a week after his release, Hesseman met the woman who would be his second wife, a jeweler. (Hesseman has never disclosed the name of either wife.) After a 10-month relationship and a four-month separation, Hesseman made what must be one of the most unique marriage proposals on record. "I seem to be fairly unhappy with you and fairly unhappy without you, and you know me very well and you seem to still want to get married. So in spite of the fact that you know me as well as you do, do you still want to get married?" She did, so they did—at a San Francisco Zen temple in April 1965. The marriage lasted until 1967, "the summer of love," as Hesseman dryly calls it.

During that marriage, Hesseman also joined the Committee, the legendary improvisational comedy troupe. Because the group was radical and controversial Hesseman used a stage name, Don Sturdy, to avoid the undue attention of the California parole board. It was one of the few such precautions he took. By then, Hesseman was in the middle of what he now calls "my 20-year dalliance with drugs," which included marijuana and cocaine. Unsurprisingly many of Hesseman's first acting roles—in the film Petulia, for example, or a TV movie, The Feminist and the Fuzz—were hippies.

It wasn't until 1981, his third season of playing WKRP's brain-warped deejay Dr. Johnny Fever, that Hesseman decided to get off drugs. "It was time to clean up. I'd never liked to work loaded. And I was looking at friends. One almost died because he was on the junkie's treadmill—smack and speed—and he had no immune system left. Some of my friends did die."

Other changes with an equally sobering effect were occurring in 1982. For one, Hesseman's mother died of cancer that year. Then too he had recently met Caroline Ducrocq, 38, a volatile, forthright Parisian actress. "We were in the early stages of courtship, and I wondered what it would be like to be with her and not be loaded," says Hesseman. "I couldn't bring myself to go to a program. I did it on my own. I didn't feel I was that deeply into drugs, but it was difficult."

Ducrocq is still living in Hesseman's Hollywood Hills home, and their relationship is still strong—though Hesseman self-deprecatingly adds, "When I look in the mirror, I don't understand why." These days he rarely drinks and uses no chemicals. He and Caroline both see therapists—one for him, one for her and one they see together. "Suffice it to say that there is an overlapping of shrinkage in our house," laughs Hesseman.

Though he keeps his 1964 Cutlass convertible in the driveway, Hesseman uses his 1982 BMW to drive to work—where he picks up an estimated $60,000 per episode. "I've become the person I used to make a meager living satirizing," he says. Yet his income bracket has inspired little conservatism and done nothing to quell his need for provocation. For all his current success, he recalls a night in 1969 as one of his greatest moments as an actor. Performing with the Committee, he was doing an abrasive routine about the Vietnam war. "A woman stood up and said, 'I have two children at home, and if I thought that either of them was going to grow up to be like you, I would smother them in their sleep tonight.' " Hesseman flashes a triumphant crooked grin. "I did my job that evening. I touched her somehow."

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