Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Tribute to WKRP in Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson (1943-2018), Part 1

Last week, the world lost another creator of classic TV when  the writer behind the beloved WKRP in Cincinnati, Hugh Wilson, died at age 74 in Virginia, where he had lived for over a decade.  Best known for executive producing WKRP’s 90 episodes, which gained popularity in syndication after its initial 1978-82 run, Wilson segued later into film, directing The First Wives Club and the first of the Police Academy movies.

Ten years ago, in the spring of 2008, I had the pleasure of conducting a long interview with Wilson for a WKRP story Watch! magazine.  Below is part 1, talking about Wilson’s transition into television, and the birth of his classic hit.

Must-Hear TV:  I’ve heard you mention in interviews that you didn’t initially set out to be in television. How did a Southern boy like you end up in Hollywood?

Hugh Wilson:  I’m from Florida, and went to the University of Florida.  After that, I went to New York and worked up north for a little bit, and then to Atlanta.  In New York, there weren’t many Southerners.  I think it kind of helped me, because it was like, “What’s this guy doing here?”  You get a little bit of a brand.  That was good.

I had been since college in the advertising business.  I was in Atlanta at an agency that no longer exists called Burton Campbell, which not big, but a very good creative agency.  I was the creative director there.  Then I left and got a job at MTM Productions, where I was able to sell some scripts to the Bob Newhart Show.  That was my first credit.  It was a great honor and was also a thrill.  I liked the show so much, and it was a big national icon of a hit.  And also Suzanne Pleshette, rest her lovely soul, and Bob Newhart were just such wonderful nice people.

MHTV:  What was it like, landing that first TV job?

HW:  Back then, MTM and Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin’s company [Tandem Productions] were sort of the Harvard and Yale of the independent producers.  Both of them had so many comedies on the air.  So it was a great break for me to get a job at MTM.  Two wonderful writers, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, allowed me to write on the Newhart show and then for the next two seasons, I was a staff writer on the short-lived Tony Randall Show, which was also CBS.  And then I created WKRP.  So I was very lucky, because I had only been in Hollywood for two and a half years before I suddenly found myself with a national show on network television.

I had no idea at the time what a lovely situation I was in.  It was only later in my career, when I saw how much pushing and shoving can go on, that I realized that Grant Tinker had created the most pleasant environment a writer could ever ask for.  I think what had something to do with that was that Jim Brooks was such an exceptional talent.  He and Allan Burns had created the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and of course Jim went on to become an Academy Award-winning director.  But I think Grant came to really rely on writers thanks to Jim and Allan.

MHTV:  What inspired WKRP?  Did you have a background in radio or in music?

HW:  No, but when I was in the advertising business in Atlanta, there was a bar there called Harrison’s that for some reason was kind of a media bar.  All the radio sales reps and disc jockeys and advertising people hung out there, and I knew a lot of people in radio, and I thought they were an interesting group.  When I had the idea, when I was asked by Grant, “Do you have any pilot ideas?”, I thought of a rock and roll station that was down on its luck.  And when CBS said, “Yeah, let’s look into that,” I went back to Atlanta, and my friends at the Top 40 rock station there let me come in and hang out for a couple of weeks.

I’m a big music fan, but I myself have no musical talent at all.  If I sing, people say, “You shouldn’t really do that.”  But that was part of the great fun of it.  When we were starting out, they said, “You know, it’s too expensive to pay for all the rights to al this music.”  Let’s do like they do on Happy Days, some soundalikes.  But I was pretty adamant that it had to be the real music.  So it was interesting – all the MTM shows had been shot on film, but we found that if we shot it on videotape, we could get a different kind of [music licensing] deal, like a variety show deal for the music.

At the time, film and videotape were pretty segregated:  “That’s a film lot” or “That’s a tape lot.”  So we became the first MTM show to leave the CBS Radford lot, and we went over to KTLA and were a videotape show just so we could afford the music.  We eventually moved back to the Radford lot in Studio City – that’s where MTM had most of their stuff.

MHTV:  Music was so important to WKRP.  Who chose the music for each episode?

HW:  I was picking the music, but then Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid, who were playing the DJs, asked if they could pick their own music.  I said yes, because they had excellent taste.  So unless I absolutely need a song for the story, they picked most of the music.  But it was very interesting because record labels started treating us almost like a radio station.  They would send me all this free stuff – it was wonderful.   I’d get standup posters, which I’d put in the set.  Once they saw I’d put posters on national television, I was just inundated with PR.

MHTV:  And why Cincinnati, of all places?  Why not Atlanta, if that’s what you knew?

HW:  I thought the show should be set in kind of not a big market.  That’s one reason; plus, I kind of wanted it somewhere in flyover country.   But I mainly chose the name by saying, “WKRP in Buffalo,” “WKRP in…” “Cincinnati” seemed to just roll off the tongue.  I had never been there in my life.  I’d like to tell you there was more thought in choosing it.  And then we came to really love Cincinnati, because when we went there with the cast, they treated us as if we were one of them.  They particularly liked Loni [Anderson].

MHTV:  Why CBS?  And what was the network’s initial reaction to the show?

HW:  MTM had a very special relationship with CBS, and so they pretty much took their shows there.  Later, Grant Tinker ended up taking the job as CEO at NBC.  But Rhoda, Mary and Bob were all CBS shows.  Also, CBS was, at least in my opinion, the “Tiffany Network.”  I think that was in everybody’s mind in those days.  CBS was first class, so people tried for that.

And at CBS, one of the reasons I thought I caught a break on WKRP is that, I came to discover, a lot of the people in the development department and those who had a say in new shows, had a background in radio, and so they had a proprietary love for it.  Immediately they would say, “When I was in radio…” and they’d start pitching me bits and pieces and funny things that happened to them.

In fact, the most famous show we did was a Thanksgiving show, “Turkeys Away,” where we threw turkeys out of a helicopter.  And I had gotten that from a station manager in Dallas.  He was fired and couldn’t get a job for a year after that.   I had asked him, “Can you think of any remarkable things?”  And in five minutes, he told me the whole thing.  I thought “Oh my God, this is going to be so much fun,” and realized he had just given me my Emmy.  And that episode all pretty much all came from this fellow’s lips.

Coming soon:  part 2:  the four-season life and death of WKRP in Cincinnati

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