Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Tribute to WKRP in Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson (1943-2018), Part 2

Last week, the world lost another creator of classic TV when  the writer behind the beloved WKRP in CincinnatiHugh 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 2, talking about the writing process and cancellation of WKRP and his follow-up, Frank's Place.

Must-Hear TV:  Once WKRP was on the air, I remember as a viewer having a hard time finding it, through many different time slots.  Did you feel that CBS supported the show?

Hugh Wilson:  That’s where the story changes.  I think everybody liked the show, but it went on the air and didn’t do well.  They took it off the air for “fine tuning.”  Frankly, I don’t know what fine tuning means.  Then or now.  There were some meetings – I don’t think any changes came out of it.  And then they put it back on the air.  They hung in with it, I think, because it got very good reviews.  The problem that for some reason we couldn’t get a stable time slot, and got moved all over the place.   When your own mother is calling you wanting to know when the show’s on, there’s something wrong.

But on the other hand, there’s an odd dividend to that.  When we went into syndication, a lot of people found the show for the first time.  WKRP was bigger in syndication success than any of the MTM shows.  And it certainly wasn’t in its first run on CBS.  I had a feeling that they liked the show but also didn’t love it, and didn’t hate it.  People are surprised that we were only on for four seasons.  We stayed on the air, but never really in a stable time slot.  So there were some hard feelings about that.

MHTV:  How did you find out that the show was cancelled?

HW:  I could kind of see it coming, but we weren’t allowed to write any kind of wrap up.  We were told it had to be a regular episode, because it was still under debate whether the show was going to get cancelled or not.  And then Grant [Tinker] got a call from Harvey Shepard who was running CBS at the time.  It became a choice whether they were going to keep us, or Alice.  So we were pretty confident it would be us, but it wasn’t – it was Alice.

MHTV:  What makes the show resonate this many years later?

HW:  I think the cast was the real deal.  Hell, I wrote or rewrote most of the scripts, but I would have to say myself that it was the cast.  I do think there was a tradition at MTM at that time to really try to write good characters.  Who not only get the laughs, but get a little deeper than that.  

I knew of Howard Hesseman from going way back.  He was a member of The Committee, which was like a Second City in San Francisco.  I had been watching him, had my eye on him.  He did a lot of guest shots on other shows.  Gordon Jump I saw on Soap.  He had kind of a recurring character, but he wasn’t a regular contractually.  Loni [Anderson] I just met – she hadn’t really been in town long from Minnesota.  Jan Smithers just came in to audition.  I was aware of Tim [Reid] because of the comedy routine he and a partner used to do on variety shows.  Frank Bonner and Gary Sandy were CBS favorites.  Gary had been on a Norman Lear show called All That Glitters.  And they liked him in that, so they were really pushing hard, and I was delighted to have him.  Richard Sanders I had never seen before.  After I met him, I looked at a tape of him – Richard had I think mainly been in dramas, a pretty serious actor, which surprised me, because I thought he was funnier than hell.

What happens is the writer creates the characters on paper and the actors come in and inhabit those.  So for a while, they’re following the script.  And then as the show moves on, pretty soon the writers are chasing the actors and taking their cues from them instead of them taking their cues from the script.  That’s a nice way of working, and we were lucky to have it that way.

One more actor I should mention:  Carol Bruce.  She wasn’t in the pilot.  A woman who used to be a famous actress was -- Sylvia Sidney.  And I think Sylvia kind of thought it was beneath her, so it was fun to switch it.  Carol was great.  You know at one point she was on the cover of Life magazine.  She was a wonderful song and dance woman.  I didn’t know that until I got to know her.

MHTV:  Were there any specific bits of business the actors brought to the characters?

HW:  It wasn’t specific lines or pieces of business.  Like Frank Bonner, playing Herb Tarlek.  Just the way he would stand, and the way he looked at Loni.  You know Loni doesn’t get credit for being as funny as she is – she’s a wonderful comic actress.  But one of the things that’s funny about her is she’s so strikingly good looking.  She made the IQ go down of every male character who walked into the room.  She made all the guys funny because they pretty much lost their cool the moment they saw her.  But Bonner lost it in the most wonderful way.  You realize at some point that when you start talking about Herb instead of Frank, like he’s in Cincinnati and he’s a real guy, that’s when you feel you’re writing well, that you’ve sort of bought the act yourself.

MHTV:  The WKRP ensemble included an African-American character – was that considered groundbreaking in 1978?

HW:  I hadn’t thought of that.  Frankly I hadn’t thought of the show as groundbreaking except I knew the music was a whole new deal.  Another thing I thought was setting us apart is something I wanted from the beginning, to really be a true ensemble.  Mary [Tyler Moore Show] was a wonderful ensemble, but they came in levels.  There was Mary and Lou Grant, and then the next level.  I was trying to keep it really egalitarian.  I didn’t always pull that off.  We were always saying, “Let’s do a show this week about this character.”  And the actors, if they were pretty light one week, they wouldn’t get their noses out of joint because they knew we’d be getting around to them, to one where their character would be really heavy.

There have been some shows where the behind-the-scenes ambience was just gruesome.  We’d tape on Friday, and we’d be walking out by 9PM.  But we would hear stories of other shows, with everybody yelling and screaming and fighting.  That is really not my style, and hopefully I had an impact on the people I hired.  I think you’ve got to be careful.  If you have a show and area so blessed that it’s successful, you could be with these people for years.

MHTV:  Were you involved in the 1990s WKRP reboot?

HW:  No.  I was honored that the show was being redone, but at the same time I didn’t much like the idea.  I thought what’s done is done.  By then I had moved to Virginia.  Whereas I could get involved in a movie, in order to do television you have to live [in Los Angeles].  I just never thought it was a good idea, but bless their hearts.

MHTV:  The show and its characters had such a distinctive look, too.

HW:  From the start, Tim said, “Look, I just don’t want to be the typical black guy,” and Loni said, “I don’t want to be the typical bimbo.”  Thank God Tim got involved in his wardrobe a little bit, because I needed help there.  I knew how Herb would dress, because at the time all I’d have to do is go through the Atlanta airport, and it would be wall-to-wall polyester leisure suits.  But just within our four years, his clothes got so out of fashion that the costume people finally had to go to golf course pro shops to find that crap.  So much changed in those four years, when there was a lot going on.  Dr. Johnny Fever, he’s got a serious problem with disco.  And I think disco was kind of over by the time we finished.

MHTV:  You gave Venus Flytrap a back story – real name Gordon Simms, and being a former teacher – that was a lot like Sting’s in real life.  Was that intentional?

HW:  I’d like to tell you I was.  The name “Venus Flytrap” just got into my head, and a lot of people said, “That’s a woman’s name.”  But then Tim Reid said, “I think that’s a good name,” and I don’t think anyone ever complained.

MHTV:  Do you still hear from fans about WKRP?

HW:  It’s amazing to me today how people will come up and start quoting lines to me.  Around here [in Virginia] people will ask, “What do you do?” and I say, “Nothing.”  Then they’ll say, “What did you do?”  I’ll start telling them, and they think I’m lying.  And then they say, “My God, WKRP!” and they start telling me about the show – I don’t have to say a word.

MHTV:  Who are the fans, most often?

HW:  It’s men and women, and they’re late 30s and older.  I teach a television writing course at the University of Virginia.  And the kids say to me – this happens every damn time – after class:  “Hey, Mr. Wilson, my parents wanted me to tell you how much they loved WKRP.”

MHTV:  Does the show have a legacy?  What did it change in television?

HW:  I don’t think it changed anything.  You know, Barney Miller was a show I admired, and I loved the idea of the workplace rather than the home.  The formula usually was office/home/office/home.  If you look at any of the MTM shows that’s how it would go.  I liked the idea of making the family the office.  I don’t know thought that that was new ground.  I thought we broke good ground, but I don’t know if we broke new ground.

I went on to do Frank’s Place, and was breaking all kinds of ground there.  I had directed a movie or two by then, and when I went back to television, I shot it one-camera.  I didn’t have much of a budget but tried to make it look like a feature.  I dumped the laugh track.  I got an Emmy out of it.  It all got hung on the same washline as a dramedy, because another show came out that was just like it.  But in fact I had no idea anybody was doing what I was doing.

The way Frank’s Place came about was, Cajun food was the rage, and everyone at the Ivy was eating blackened something or other.  They said, “You’re a Southerner… Cajun food….”  I went down to New Orleans a couple of times with Tim Reid.  We really researched that pretty thoroughly and came back with something that was not what [Hollywood] had in mind.  I was more over in the black part of town, not on Bourbon St., and was talking more about a Creole cuisine than Cajun.  I made it almost entirely black.  I thought it would be funny to have the white guy as the 6th man.  There were two white people in the regular cast.  That was amazing.  I hired one of the regulars, just a guy I met on an airplane, because I couldn’t find any actors who could do the specific New Orleans accent, to please my Southern ear.  It’s called a Ninth Ward or Eighth Ward accent.  So I hired this guy and bless CBS’ heart, they said,  “Wait a minute, one of the regulars you’re sending over for us to read, he’s never acted before in his life?”  His name is Don Yesso.  And the story was so amazing, Johnny Carson scooped him up immediately, so it worked well for us.

MHTV:  It sounds like by the time of Frank’s Place, you had some leeway.  But was there anything the network wouldn’t let you do on WKRP?

HW:  You won’t believe this based on what’s on today, but they were very, very careful about “hell”s and “damn”s.  And there could be no suggestion of drugs.  There could be something in the playing, not in any overt dialogue.  [Howard Hesseman] would always kind of play it like some kind of drug flashback, and he did talk about having flashbacks.  But we had written a scene once where he stepped out of the janitor’s closet fanning the air, right into the arms of the big guy, and that went right out.  That wasn’t even going to be discussed.  Clearly he must have had a joint in there.  I knew that wasn’t going to get in.  I sometimes think I put that in so I could get something else.  You do that – you kind of collect the chips – I caved on this and caved on that, so please let me have such and such.  It was such a different time in terms of that.

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