Creator of ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ Hugh Wilson has passed away

Posted Tuesday, January 16, 2018 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

The creator of the classic sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati” Hugh Wilson has died, according to CBS19 in Charlottesville, VA. He was 74.

The show was inspired by the shenanigans at once influential Atlanta top 40 station 790/WQXI-AM (Quixie in Dixie). Wilson was an Atlanta ad sales guy here for many years and he used stories he heard about that station and the characters he met there to create the show, which ran on CBS from 1978 to 1982.

The show did okay but was not a huge hit at the time. “They stuck with us and we stumbled through four years,” Wilson said in a 2015 interview to the Archive of American Television. It actually did far better in syndication in the 1980s.

Wilson won an Emmy for writing an episode for his show “Frank’s Place” in the late 1980s. He also wrote the original “Police Academy” and films like “Guarding Tess” and “The First Wive’s Club.”

In an extensive 1987 profile written by former AJC reporter Phil Kloer, Wilson described his long-standing love affair with Atlanta, even as a student at the University of Florida. (Note: much of the next seven graphs are taken from Kloer’s original story, with only minimal modifications.)

“When I was in college – back in 1858,” Wilson joked, “Florida would play Georgia Tech every year. We’d go up to Atlanta, and I’d look around [his eyes bulge out, playing the archetypal rube-comes-to-the-big-city] and go, ‘Hot Dang! I like Atlanta!’ ”

“I just thought Atlanta was the greatest city I’d ever been in,” he added.

He got into sales after college and in 1966, Willson joined the Burton-Campbell ad agency in Atlanta and proceeded to disgrace himself. “I started out as an assistant account executive, and that didn’t work out,” he recalled. “I was with company president Jack Burton one day and fell asleep in the client’s office. They were going to have to get rid of me as an account executive. I was just useless.”

What saved him was that he started writing advertising copy for the firm and showed a talent for it. He was transferred from selling ads to creating them, and he never looked back.

He became creative director, and then, at the age of 32, president of Burton-Campbell. “That was really the Peter Principle gone berserk,” he says, referring to the tendency of businesses to promote people until they reach their level of incompetence. As president, Wilson was in what he calls “a position of complete ineptitude,” doing what he did worst, unable to get to what he did best: “I wasn’t writing or directing, just constantly involved with acquiring new business. I hated it. I just hated it.”

In 1976, after a decade in Atlanta, Wilson went to Los Angeles on vacation and stayed at the home of his old friend Jay Tarses, who was a comedy writer for the prestigious MTM Studios, home of shows as diverse as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and, later, “Hill Street Blues.”

He quit advertising and jumped into TV writing, eventually creating “WKRP in Cincinnati.”

Several characters on the show were based on actual people. Dr. Johnny Fever, played by Howard Hessemen, was based in part on “Skinny” Bobby Harper of WQXI. “Big Guy” Arthur Carlson, the bumbling general manager played by Gordon Jump, was based on Jerry Blum, the WQXI general manager. Fashion-challenged Herb Tarleck (Frank Bonner) was a stand-in for long-time Atlanta radio executive Clarke Brown.

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