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Hugh Wilson, who created the acclaimed sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati and directed and co-wrote the first Police Academy movie, launching a Warner Bros. franchise, has died. He was 74.
An Emmy winner and seven-time nominee, Wilson died Sunday at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, his family announced. The cause of death was lung cancer.
Wilson also directed The First Wives Club (1996), starring Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton as women seeking revenge on their ex-husbands, and co-wrote and helmed Guarding Tess (1994), featuring Shirley MacLaine as a first lady and Nicolas Cage as a Secret Service agent trying to protect her.
Wilson wrote and directed two 1999 films that starred Brendan Fraser, Blast From the Past and Dudley Do-Right, and penned the screenplay for Hal Needham’s Stroker Ace (1983), starring Burt Reynolds and his future wife Loni Anderson, one of the breakout stars of WKRP.
WKRP in Cincinnati, set at a rock radio station in the Ohio city, ran for four seasons on CBS from 1978-82. It starred Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid as deejays Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap, respectively; Gary Sandy and Gordon Jump as station execs; Richard Sanders as the mousey newsman Les Nessman; and Anderson as WKRP’s comely receptionist. The station call letters were a pun on “W-crap.”
Wilson was a writer at MTM Enterprises and at work on The Tony Randall Show when he approached MTM head Grant Tinker about an idea for another comedy, one that was based on his experience as a sales executive at a Top 40 radio station in Atlanta.
“I told Grant, and we went over to CBS, and they all said, ‘Yeah, hey, great,'” Wilson said in a 2012 oral-history discussion about one of the series’ finest episodes, “Turkeys Away,” on the Classic TV History blog.
“What was lucky for me was that most of those guys … had at one time or another been in the radio business. I hadn’t counted on having that kind of built-in affection for the idea.
“The character of Johnny Fever, he was based on a guy I knew in Atlanta called Skinny Bobby Harper. That was funny, because he was the morning guy, so Skinny had to get up at 4 in the morning to get in there. But he also loved being in the bars at night. He was like Fever. In the pilot, I said [to Hesseman], ‘You’ve got to play it like you’re sleepwalking, because you should be asleep by 8, but 8 is just when you’re going out.”
Probably because it was shifted 12 times on the CBS schedule, WKRP — always a critical darling — had trouble finding a sizable network audience. However, it became a huge hit in first-run syndication after its original airing and spawned The New WKRP in Cincinnati, which aired another two years on local stations.
In 1983, Wilson was asked to rewrite a screenplay for a movie about a group of misfits in training to join the police force.
“I got this script, and it was such a lousy piece of junk,” he recalled in a 2015 interview for the Archive of American Television. “I told my agent that I was in no way interested.
“He came back to me and said, ‘This is The Ladd Co., it’s an important company, part of Warner Bros., a lot of important people are attached — and they’re saying that if you do a rewrite, they’ll let you direct it.’ I said, ‘That’s a whole different story.'”
Police Academy (1984), starring Steve Guttenberg, Bubba Smith, George Gaynes and Michael Winslow, was made for $3.8 million, according to Wilson, and grossed about $100 worldwide, one of most financially successful movies released that year. Six sequels, none involving Wilson, followed.
“He was a writer first,” Winslow, the comic famous for making sound effects, said Tuesday in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “He taught me that if the script is funny, don’t force it to be funny. Let it play, let it play.”
Hugh Hamilton Wilson Jr. was born on Aug. 21, 1943, in Miami. He attended the University of Florida and graduated in 1965 with a degree in journalism.
A year later, Wilson got a job with Armstrong World Industries’ in-house advertising department in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he and others would stage shows for salesmen that sold ads for flooring products to network TV shows.
It was there that he met Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett. While Wilson would eventually become a radio exec and then a partner and creative director at the Burton-Campbell advertising agency — for whom he wrote and directed TV commercials — Tarses and Patchett went on to write on series like MTM’s The Bob Newhart Show.
With an assist from the writers, Wilson came to Los Angeles ready to shuck his current career and start a new one in Hollywood, and Tinker gave the ad exec, then 30, a low-level job for $200 a week as a gofer.
“I got to sit up in the stands and watch as the week progressed on The Mary Tyler Moore Show [and other MTM series,]” he recalled. Wilson then wrote his first episode of Newhart in 1976.
He also created three other series: Frank’s Place, starring Reid as an Ivy League professor who inherits a New Orleans restaurant; The Famous Teddy Z, with Jon Cryer as a Hollywood agent; and Easy Street, starring Anderson as a wealthy young widow. All lasted just one season.
Wilson won his Emmy for writing an episode of Frank’s Place (the show was rare in that it was nominated for best comedy in its lone season). He also was nominated three times for his work on WKRP.
Wilson also worked on such films as Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985), Burglar (1987), Down Periscope (1996), Southie (1998) and Mickey (2004).
He and his family moved from Los Angeles to a Virginia farm in 1992, and he taught TV and screenwriting at the University of Virginia.
Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Charters Smith Wilson; children Cannon, Price, Margaret, Hugh and Caroline; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. on Saturday at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville.
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