During the ’70s, when radio was a big deal in American media and TV comedies were popular, there was one show that fused the best of both worlds into an unforgettable package: WKRP In Cincinnati. The story is that of a radio station struggling to build a name for itself.
Their struggles brought us so much music and laughter. It also didn’t hurt that the cast was extremely gifted, which humanized their characters. But, like most shows, there are details many don’t know, and the producers would like to keep it that way. We know some, and we’d like to share!
Les Nessman’s Trademark Bandage Was a Real Accident
Les Nessman (played by Richard Sanders) had been injured and had to wear a bandage before shooting the first episode (which was actually a two-part pilot), but he opted to make it his character’s trademark instead. Throughout the show, Les appears wearing a variety of bandages.
It was later explained the initial accident occurred because Sanders had “a very big dog.” So anytime you’re watching reruns, keep your eyes peeled for Les Nessman and you’ll find a bandage somewhere on his body. It could be his finger or right there on his forehead!
The Characters Were Based on Hugh Wilson’s Family
Creator Hugh Wilson based the WKRP characters on members of his family. Interestingly enough, Bailey Quarters (played by Jan Smithers) was based on Wilson’s wife, a woman who was known to be quiet, soft-spoken, and shy, but who always knew when to speak up when it mattered most.
Wilson has also stated that Andy Travis’ character (played by Gary Sandy) was inspired by one of his cousins. The idea of Travis trying to convert WKRP into a rock ‘n’ roll station is based on a real-life program director, Mikel Herrington, who is regarded as a pioneer in radio.
The Show Wasn’t Filmed!
WKRP was one of the most captivating sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s thanks to the performances of its cast. In addition, the show continues to be a classic because of its many fantastic episodes. However, the show wasn’t filmed; it was recorded on tape!
We know you’re asking why; we did, too. The show’s producers learned that the rights to rock music were less expensive for shows recorded on tape than for shows shot on film and opted to go this route because the show features a substantial quantity of rock music.
WKRP Made People Famous
WKRP launched many bands into pop stardom. Some examples are U2, Toto, and The Knack. The Cars and Devo also credit WKRP with helping them grow their fan bases. But the biggest band to receive a boost to its reputation from the show was quite possibly Blondie.
Blondie’s album Parallel Lines went on to gold record status after the show played its “Heart of Glass” song “on-air.” Blondie was so appreciative that they presented a gold record to the show, which can occasionally be seen hanging up in the background in some scenes.
A Different Dr. Johnny Fever?
We watched and enjoyed Howard Hesseman play the role of Dr. Johnny Fever for many years. Could you imagine him not playing that role? Well, he wasn’t the series creator’s first choice! If David Cassidy hadn’t turned down the role, things would have been drastically different in Cincinnati.
Cassidy had earlier starred in the TV sitcom The Partridge Family, which ended in 1974. Hesseman won the role of Dr. Johnny Fever, but only after he was asked to read for Herb Tarlek’s character and adamantly refused to audition for anything but Johnny. That’s one way to apply pressure!
Herb Tarlek’s Volkswagen Suit
Speaking of Herb Tarlek, here’s one fact you’ve probably never heard of: There’s one popular line from the show in the Season 2 episode “Put Up or Shut Up” that Venus Flytrap quips in a conversation with Herb, who had a habit of wearing all sorts of tacky suits.
Venus Flytrap said, “Somewhere out there, there’s a Volkswagen with no seats.” Actually, Herb did wear a suit made from Volkswagen seat covers. Who would have thought?! We’re pretty sure Venus must have spent quite some time in the backseat of Volkswagens.
Venus Flytrap Inspired ‘Ladies Man’ on Saturday Night Live
As it turns out, WKRP not only helped launch bands to stardom, some of its characters inspired other people. Venus Flytrap was suave on WKRP in Cincinnati, and you can be sure that if there’s a party to attend, he’d have a date for it. Sound familiar?
Yes, yes, it does. It sounds just like Leon Phelps, the “Ladies Man” character developed by Tim Meadows for Saturday Night Live, which even later became a feature film. We’re not the only ones to notice the similarity: Meadows has confirmed that Tim Reid’s WKRP character influenced his.
The Cartoon Version of WKRP
Hanna-Barbera contacted CBS with the idea of creating a cartoon version of the show with all of the characters being dogs. Unfortunately, it never happened. But there was one cartoon that did: Nearly 10 years after the original TV show was cancelled, The New WKRP in Cincinnati debuted in 1991.
Gordon, Les, Dr. Johnny Fever, Frank Bonner, Venus Flytrap, and Jennifer Marlowe all appeared on the show. The show was, however, missing Andy Travis and Bailey Quarters. The latter’s character, Jan Smithers, had already retired by that time but Andy’s character, Sandy, just never looked back after the original show ended.
Hugh Wilson’s Real-Life Story
We mentioned earlier how some of the characters on the show were based on Wilson’s family, but the entire show was based on his reality. Wilson based the show on his real-life experiences working at WQXI in Atlanta, where he worked in the advertising sales department.
Many of the characters and some of the events were inspired by his experiences at the Atlanta station. The music contributed significantly to the show’s appeal. You won’t hear all the original music in syndication, but the show did have real rock ‘n’ roll Top 40 hits during its original run.
Does Cincinnati Really Rhyme With WKRP?
The show’s creator, Wilson, said that he had never been to Cincinnati before creating the series for CBS in 1978. According to Wilson, the city of Cincinnati was picked as the setting because it rhymed with the word “WKRP.” Wilson wrote the lyrics about “living on the air in Cincinnati.”
Wilson explained that the call letters stood for C-R-A-P. “To think we created a piece of humor that would be considered among the TV classics is great,” Gordon Jump, who starred as Arthur Carlson, stated in 1997. And it still rings true today, as people still enjoy the show’s reruns.
Real-Life Radio Stations Have Rebranded Their Names
Two radio stations in Cincinnati have similar call signs to WKRP. WKRC, an AM station, didn’t object to its use of WKRP, claiming that it was the best free advertising they had ever gotten. Another FM station with a similar format is WKRQ.
In 1986, a Salt Lake City FM station (now KUMT) branded itself WKRP and altered its call letters to KRPN. WBQC-LD, a Cincinnati television station, rebranded as “WKRP-TV” in 2008 to herald its transition to digital broadcasting. In 2015, a low-power FM station in North Carolina started broadcasting as WKRP-LP.
The Stickers in the Background Are Real
When WKRP in Cincinnati first aired, real radio DJs were ecstatic, praising the show for portraying a rare side of the industry. They were such big fans that they sent stickers and posters to the TV radio station, which were used to decorate the walls of the studio.
Virtually all the promo materials you see on the walls throughout the show are real! The DJs would probably have been unhappy with the ending because it was just gibberish – a scratch recording by some Atlanta singers that the producers didn’t modify but used it just like that!
Where Are the Stars Now?
The fact that the cast of WKRP in Cincinnati was so talented made the show even better. Although it didn’t pull up trees when it came to ratings, it earned 10 Emmy Nominations. The characters were relatable and humanized, for which the show deservedly won the Humanitas Prize.
We could argue that’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize for TV writing! The show not only touched lots of societal issues but people’s hearts as well while also selling many albums. But who was among the cast that made the series such a classic, and what has become of them?
The Brain Behind the Show – Hugh Wilson
As we mentioned, Wilson began his career in advertising before transitioning to comedy writing. And he went from writer to creator when WKRP premiered in 1978. The show, which followed a group of misfits at a radio station, lasted four seasons. Wilson married Charters Smith in 1979, and they had five children.
His daughter, Caroline Charters Wilson, is an actress and singer. In 1992, he relocated to Virginia and taught screenwriting at the University of Virginia. Wilson was a Roman Catholic. He died in his Charlottesville, Virginia, home on Jan. 14, 2018. He was 74.
Wilson Featured Loni Anderson in Another Series
Wilson tried to break into the film industry by rewriting a low-budget comedy in exchange for the opportunity to direct it. The outcome was the first Police Academy movie, written for the Ladd Company (now Warner Bros.) and producer Paul Maslansky in 1984. It was a surprise hit.
Wilson also directed Tom Berenger and Sela Ward in the singing cowboy comedy Rustlers’ Rhapsody in 1985. But this one was a box office flop. It has, however, developed a cult following over time. He also created the short-lived television series Easy Street, starring Loni Anderson.
An Infamous Collaboration With John Grisham
Wilson’s biggest hit movie after Police Academy was in 1996 with The First Wives Club. Despite garnering mixed reviews, it became a surprise box office hit in North America, grossing more than $181 million worldwide. This was largely due to its domestic run, and because it developed a cult following.
It also helped to resuscitate the careers of stars like Bette Middler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton because it was their highest-grossing project of the 90s. And in 2004, Wilson collaborated with renowned novelist, John Grisham to make Mickey, an independent film about little league baseball.
Who Was Gary Sandy (Andy Travis) in the 70s?
Sandy played Andy Travis, the new program director who transformed the station from elevator music to rock ‘n’ roll. He developed a strong bond with his team. One of many references to the local team was his satin WKRP staff jacket, a modified Cincinnati Reds warmup jacket.
Sandy was the ideal Mr. Everyman. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, and remained there until he graduated from college. Sandy began his acting career in 1970, with guest appearances on some notable shows like Medical Center and Barnaby Jones.
What Is Sandy Doing These Days?
In 1986, Sandy co-starred in the film Troll with Noah Hathaway (Neverending Story). If you haven’t seen Troll, it’s a pretty bad but entertaining Ghoulies or Gremlins attempt. His career has been relatively quiet otherwise, and he even once admitted he’s bothered that he’s only known for a 70s show.
The last time we saw Sandy on our screens was in A Place Called Home, a 2004 made-for-television film. Former Elvis lover Ann-Margret starred in the film. Today, he is 76 years old and is still acting, mostly on stage and coincidentally in some radio dramas.
Dr. Johnny Fever in the 70s
As a heavily caffeinated anti-disco DJ, Dr. Johnny Fever was the kind of DJ everyone wished they could be. He arrived at WKRP after being sacked from his previous job for using the word “booger,” and it goes without saying that he adapted quickly to the rock style.
Hesseman was originally asked to audition for the role of Herb but refused because he believed he was better suited for Johnny Fever. He wasn’t wrong! He was even nominated for two Emmys. His first television appearance was a two-episode guest appearance on The Andy Griffith Show in 1968.
Fever Landed Another Starring Role After WKRP
Hesseman’s first recurring role was a 13-episode stint on the American sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. After WKRP ended, he did, however, land another leading role when he played Charlie Moore on the ABC series Head of the Class, which ran from 1986-90.
Hesseman was virtually everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s. He had three appearances on Saturday Night Live. We last saw him in a TV role in 2017, when he appeared in two episodes of Season 3 of Fresh Off the Boat. He passed away on Jan. 29, 2022, from complications from colon surgery, at age 81.
Who Was Gordon Jump (Arthur Carlson) in the 70s?
“Big Guy” Arthur Carlson was the stammering awkward general manager whose sole qualification was that his pushy mother owned WKRP radio station. Well, Jump was extremely qualified for his position (thankfully!) Interestingly enough, Jump was born in Dayton, Ohio, the same city as Sandy.
Jump’s first job was actually at a radio station. In 1965, he made his acting debut in an episode of the television series Daniel Boone. After that, he began working consistently, including seven episodes of The Partridge Family in the early 1970s.
Gone, But Certainly Not Forgotten
Jump had previously been in the popular television drama Soap as Chief of Police Tinkler the year before he was cast as Carlson. Along with reprising his Carlson role in The New WKRP, he also starred as Ed Malone in the critically acclaimed television series Growing Pains.
During the ninth and final season of Seinfeld, Jump also played the boss of George Costanza’s playground equipment company for two episodes. This was one of his final television roles. While Jump died tragically in 2003 at the age of 71 from pulmonary fibrosis, his impact on television history is immense.
The Show’s Moral Compass
As we mentioned, Jump and Sandy were both born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. Sandy still owns a farm in Northern Kentucky, where Jump used to work for Dayton’s Channel 2 during the early 1960s. Sandy once stated that Jump served as a moral compass for the show.
Not just for the show, but for the characters, and he was right. Sandy shared his memories of Gordon, saying, “Gordon had a really great vision of how they were viewed, and he was always pushing for the integrity of the city and area.”
Loni Anderson (Jennifer Marlowe) – Then
You’ll remember Jennifer Marlowe as the station’s receptionist (and the highest-paid employee to boot). And just between us, she’s probably why most people (men, to be precise), tuned in. But Anderson wasn’t just gorgeous, she was also friendly and cheerful. She wasn’t the conventional “dumb blonde”.
Her character as Marlowe was smart and even majored in journalism. She played her role perfectly, constantly deflecting Carlson’s calls. Anderson began acting in 1966 but didn’t really take off until the late 1970s when she featured in five episodes of the popular TV series The Love Boat.
Life Before WKRP in Cincinnati
Anderson is one of the few stars of the show who had a career before WKRP. It’s not hard to imagine considering that she’s not just good-looking but also tremendously talented. Of course, it’s difficult for fans and producers to ignore such a combination.
Before starring as Marlowe on WKRP, Anderson had cameos on The Bob Newhart Show, Three’s Company, Barnaby Jones, Phyllis, Police Story, and the original S.W.A.T. She was nominated for two Emmys as a supporting actress and three Golden Globe Awards.
What Happened to Anderson After WKRP?
Anderson played the hospital administrator in Season 3 of the hit sitcom Nurses in 1993. She was also known for her colorful personal life, particularly her marriage to actor Burt Reynolds. In 1983, they starred together in the comedy Stroker Ace, which flopped at the box office.
They adopted a son but divorced in 1994 after six years. We last saw her in a film in 1998 in A Night at the Roxbury. She has had cameos in some TV shows since then, most recently, 12 episodes in My Sister is So Gay. She is 76 years old.
Loni Anderson Kept Busy After WKRP
She went on to star in films like Partners in Crime and television adaptations of classic Hollywood films like Letter to Three Wives and Sorry, Wrong Number. She also appeared in the films Burke’s Law, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Clueless, and V.I.P. as a guest star.
In 1996, Anderson starred as Teri Carson on the TV show Melrose Place. She has been married four times and divorced three. In 2008, Anderson married her current husband, singer Bob Flick. She is the mother of two children. From her marriage to Bruce Hasselberg, she has a daughter, Deidre Hoffman.
Not Much to Say About Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap)
Venus Flytrap’s real name was Gordon Sims way before he became the funky evening DJ, he was a teacher. Many will remember his character as elegant and slick. His character was so iconic, remember, that he inspired Tim Meadows’ Leon Phelps character in the SNL sketch “The Ladies Man.”
WKRP was Reid’s big break and after that, he joined the hit detective series Simon & Simon, appearing in almost 80 episodes. The next was in Sister, Sister playing Tia and Tamara Mowry’s father. He’s 77 now and founded the Legacy Media Institute, an NGO that attracts youngsters to film.
Jan Smithers (Bailey Quarters) Hasn’t Pulled Up Trees
Bailey Quarters, the station’s youthful newbie, was originally in charge of billing and station traffic. She was, however, astute, and we learned later on how much more capable she was than Nessman. As we mentioned earlier, Smithers’ character, Quarters, was inspired by Wilson’s wife.
Smithers began her career as a model, and in 1966, she was featured on the cover of Newsweek Magazine. She kickstarted her acting career in the 1974 film, Where the Lilies Bloom. But if you’re expecting that she had countless roles over the years, she didn’t.
Jan Smithers’ Intriguing Personal Life
Honestly, Smithers has possibly had more drama in her personal life than in her acting career! She has mostly been out of the spotlight for much of her career, but she has been married and divorced twice.
She was initially married to actor Kip Whitman, and then to actor James Brolin before they split. She took on the role of stepmother to Brolin’s sons, and they also had a daughter of their own, Molly.
Who Was Richard Sanders (Les Nessman)?
In WRKRP, Less Nessman played the serious (but inept) reporter. Come to think of it, it was adorable. He wore bandages in every episode. Even though we explained that mystery – he had a huge dog at home – he was injured even before the first episode.
So, what has the “bandage guy” been up to? Not much lately. He has lent his voice to the animated series Inhumanoids and starred in the WKRP revival. The last time we saw Sanders was in the comedy Expiration Date. He’s 81 years old, and we hope he’s still avoiding turkeys.
The Role Everyone Rejected, Frank Bonner’s Herb Tarlek
We’ve already learned that two people rejected this role. But why? Herb Tarlek was the brash sales manager with the tackiest suits in Cincinnati, and he was often called “Little Guy” to Arthur Carlson’s “Big Guy.”
Bonner got his start in the classic Equinox (a horror movie with stop-animation monsters) during the 1970s. If you remember, his character, Tarlek, was on crutches in some parts of the second season. Well, that’s because he fell 20 feet and suffered injuries to his back in a freak parasailing accident.
What Happened After WKRP?
Bonner was featured on Just the Ten of Us, a spinoff of Growing Pains where he played the fictional St. Augustine’s Academy principal from 1988-90. Bonner was born and raised in New York City. That’s not all, though.
He also made his directorial debut on WKRP, a total of six episodes. He has gone on to direct several shows, ranging from 11 episodes of Harry and the Hendersons to all 105 episodes of the late 1990s show, City Guys, among others.
Frank Bonner Later Years and Death
Bonner is no longer with us. Along with Gordon Jump and Howard Hesseman, he’s one of the three cast members who have passed away. But their marks on TV will certainly remain. The New York Times reported that Bonner died in his home in Laguna Niguel, California. He was 79.
Bonner’s daughter, Desiree Boers-Kort, stated that the cause of his death was a result of complications from Lewy body dementia. He learned about the disease, which leads to worsening mental and physical complications, three years before his death. We hope he’s at his peace now.
Jennifer Marlowe’s Touching Tribute to Frank
Bonner’s character, Tarlek, the station’s sales manager, was known for his abrasive personality, complete ineptitude, and outlandish suits. Anderson, who played Marlowe, WKRP’s highly efficient receptionist with whom Tarlek frequently flirted, paid a touching tribute to Bonner after his death.
Anderson said that Bonner was “one of the funniest men I had the pleasure of working with,” and “the nicest man I have ever known.” Ms. Boers-Kort said Bonner valued his time on WKRP in Cincinnati because it led him to the career he preferred: directing.
Deserved Recognitions for WKRP in Cincinnati
WKRP didn’t particularly do well in the ratings, but it was nominated for 10 Emmys in its four seasons, including three consecutive nominations for Best Comedy (1980-82). The show won just once, for outstanding videotape editing. Wilson did win two renowned Humanitas Prizes for WKRP.
The Humanitas Prize is awarded for writing in television and film that promotes significance and human dignity. Frank’s Place, a CBS comedy featuring WKRP alum Tim Reid as a New Orleans restaurant owner, won Wilson his third Humanitas. Wilson’s only Emmy Award came for writing Frank’s Place.
A Star-Studded Lineup of Musicians
Besides the crazy comedy that cracked us up, WKRP was also known for its unique 1970s and 1980s rock music. We heard more than 100 musical artists during the show’s run, including Rock & Roll Hall of Famers such as Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and Elvis Presley.
Others include Stevie Wonder, Booker T. And The M.G.’s, Marvin Gaye, AC/DC, Jackson Browne, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elvis Costello, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Earth, Wind & Fire, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Grateful Dead Elton John, B.B. King, and Bob Marley, among many others.
WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD
With such a heavy lineup of musical stars, anybody (including us) would want to listen to the original music over and over again! Well, thankfully, we can. To hear the original music, you’ll need to purchase the Shout Factory! set.
The whole WKRP in Cincinnati series was released on DVD in a 13-disc boxed set in the fall of 2014. It is the 2006 Twentieth Century Fox version that is shown on MeTV on weeknights, and it is packed with generic rock riffs instead of the original music.
Unlucky or What Happened?
Understandably, people wonder why such a show suffered low ratings despite how good it was. Here’s why: The show originally aired immediately after M*A*S*H, which helped it become immensely popular. During the show’s second season, CBS regularly shuffled it around the schedule.
As a result, it was impossible for people to include WKRP in their weekly viewing plan. The show’s ratings dropped as a result. CBS canceled the show after two-and-a-half seasons of poor ratings. It did, however, go into syndication almost immediately.
What Made WKRP Special
The show’s comedy, realism, and music weren’t the only things that kept us hooked for years: WKRP in Cincinnati addressed major problems as well. Venus Flytrap, one of the radio personalities, admitted to being a Vietnam deserter. Homophobia and natural disasters were also tackled on the show.
WKRP even delved into the 1979 concert event outside of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum, where 11 people were trampled to death while waiting to see The Who. After going into syndication, the sitcom outperformed other popular shows such as Monday Night Football and Little House on the Prairie in ratings.