Hugh Wilson, Who Created ‘WKRP in Cincinnati,’ Dies at 74
Posted January 17, 2018 7:31 p.m. EST
Hugh Wilson, who created the CBS comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati” and directed the raucous hit film “Police Academy” in 1984, died on Sunday at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was 74.
The death was announced by Hill & Wood Funeral Services of Charlottesville. No cause was given.
Wilson worked his way into comedy writing after starting out in advertising, and in 1978 he graduated from writer to creator when “WKRP” made its debut.
The series, about a radio station full of misfits, ran for four seasons and had a cast that included Gary Sandy as the station’s levelheaded program director, Loni Anderson as the sexy receptionist, and Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid as disc jockeys.
“Every call letter that I ran through my mind was already taken,” Wilson said in an oral history for the Archive of American Television, explaining how his fictional station got its name. “I think WKRP was not taken because it can be said that it spells ‘crap.'”
Wilson introduced a different brand of misfits in “Police Academy,” his first feature-film directing assignment, for which he was also one of the screenwriters. The movie, whose cast included Steve Guttenberg, Kim Cattrall and Bubba Smith, was about what happens when the mayor of a fictional city eliminates the admission requirements for the local police training program, attracting all manner of dubious recruits as a result.
Wilson, Vincent Canby wrote in reviewing the film for The New York Times, “knows what he’s about.”
“He remains unembarrassed by the material,” Canby wrote. “The movie plows through one outrageous sequence to the next with the momentum of a freight train.”
The movie was a box-office hit and spawned numerous sequels, though Wilson was not involved in those.
Hugh Hamilton Wilson Jr. was born on Aug 21, 1943, in Miami. His father was a surveyor, and his mother, the former Frances Nugent, was a housewife.
“My father had a really nice, gentle sense of humor, and my mother had kind of a saberlike sense of humor,” he told the archive. “I’m maybe a mix of those two.”
His family got its first television set when he was in second grade. He was especially intrigued by the commercials of the day.
“They were kind of cooler than the shows,” he said. “And I thought to myself, maybe I could get into advertising.”
After graduating from the University of Florida in 1965 with a journalism degree, he went to New York to try to crack Madison Avenue, but had no luck and took a job in the advertising department of the Armstrong Co., a maker of flooring and related products in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Every year Armstrong would bring its sales representatives to Lancaster from around the country, and Wilson’s department would put on a show for them introducing new products, hiring actors from New York to perform the skits and songs.
That is how he met Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, struggling performers who would soon form a comedy team, with Wilson serving as their road manager. After Wilson split off from them for a job at an advertising agency in Atlanta, Patchett and Tarses ended up in Los Angeles as comedy writers.
When Wilson visited them on a West Coast trip and expressed a desire to switch to comedy writing himself, they arranged an interview with Grant Tinker, Mary Tyler Moore’s husband and co-founder of her production company, MTM Enterprises. Though 30 years old, he took a job as a gofer.
“They all said, ‘You’re too old to be getting sandwiches,'” he recalled of cast and crew members’ reactions to seeing him on the set. But the job allowed him to observe the TV-making process, and in 1976 he was given the chance to write some episodes of “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Tony Randall Show.”
One day Tinker came through the Randall show’s set asking if anyone had any ideas for new pilots. Wilson responded with the pitch for “WKRP,” honing it by spending a week at WQXI, a radio station in Atlanta where he knew a lot of the staff from his advertising days.
“I wanted the show to be authentic in the eyes of people who worked in radio stations,” Wilson explained. “And it all was, except I wanted turntables, and by then they were using cassettes.”
He said his favorite episode — it is many fans’ as well — was “Turkeys Away,” from Season 1. The episode, inspired by a real story one of his Atlanta friends had told about an ill-conceived Thanksgiving promotion, involved throwing live turkeys out of a helicopter.
In an era dominated by comedies like “M.A.S.H,” “Three’s Company” and “Happy Days,” “WKRP” was never a huge ratings success — partly, Wilson said, because its time slot was changed several times during its run. But it captured new fans later when it ran in syndication.
“We were kind of an after-the-fact hit,” he said.
In 1991 a sequel, “The New WKRP in Cincinnati,” made its debut. Though it had Wilson’s name on it as creator, he was not involved with the new show. It ran in first-run syndication for 46 episodes.
Wilson used Reid again in “Frank’s Place,” a 1987 show he created that lasted only a year but that won Wilson an Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series. He also created the series “The Famous Teddy Z.”
In addition to “Police Academy,” Wilson’s films as a director included “Guarding Tess” (1994), starring Shirley MacLaine and Nicolas Cage, and “The First Wives Club” (1996), with Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler.
Wilson is survived by his wife of almost 40 years, the former Charters Smith; his children, Cannon Wilson Sayers, Price Wilson White, Margaret Wilson Thomas, Caroline Charters Wilson and Hugh Patrick Wilson; and four grandchildren.
After moving to Virginia from Los Angeles in 1992, Wilson sometimes taught screenwriting at the University of Virginia. A few years ago, he said, he tried to get back into television, floating a show idea in Hollywood, but got nowhere. He said he fully understood why no one was interested in an aging TV writer, even one with his résumé.
“I know the feeling,” he said. “When I was working on ‘KRP’ or ‘Bob Newhart,’ if some ‘I Love Lucy’ writers came in and wanted a job, we’d go, ‘Please; you’re so done.’ So what goes around comes around.”