Hugh Wilson, an Emmy-winning writer-producer and WKRP in Cincinnati series creator who also directed several features including The First Wives Club and the original Police Academy, has died. He was 74. WCAV-TV Charlottesville, VA, reported that he died over the weekend in Albemarle County.
Wilson started his TV writing career on The Bob Newhart Show and The Tony Randall Show in the mid-1970s. He then created the influential sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, which aired for four seasons on CBS from 1978-82. Chronicling life at a struggling radio station after the arrival of a new ratings-hungry program director (Gary Sandy), the series wasn’t a breakout hit, only making the annual primetime top 25 ince, in 1979-80, but it was nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy three consecutive times, losing twice to Taxi and once to Barney Miller.
Wilson exec produced all 90 episodes of WKRP, including the legendary Thanksgiving-stunt-gone-wrong “Turkeys Away,” which TV Guide ranked among its “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.” He also penned more than a dozen episodes of the series that also starred Gordon Jump, Loni Anderson, Tim Reid, Fank Bonner, Richard Sanders, Jan Smithers and Howard Hesseman.
In a 2015 interview with the Archive of American Television, Wilson recounted how the ridiculously funny turkey episode was based on a true story. “Jerry Blum, who was the general manager of WQXI [on which WKRP was based], told me that he had been fired from a Texas radio station for throwing turkeys out of a helicopter. I turned to Jerry and said, ‘You just won me an Emmy.'”
Watch Wilson talk about the episode here:
Nearly a decade after the series ended, Miami native Wilson created The New WKRP in Cincinnati, which aired briefly in syndication in 1991 and focused on three characters from the original series played by actors Jump (station manager Arthur Carlson), Sanders (nerdy newsman Les nessman) and Bonner (sleazebag ad salesman Herb Tarlek).
During the 1980s, Wilson created two other sitcoms starring another WKRP alum. Reid toplined the laid-back Frank’s Place, which centered on the owner of a Creole restaurant in New Orleans and his staff and customers. It lasted only one 22-episode season on CBS in 1988 but earned Wilson his lone Emmy, for writing the episode “The Bridge.” It also was up for Outstanding Comedy Series, losing to The Wonder Years.
Anderson starred in NBC’s Easy Street, a culture-clash comedy Wilson co-created about a Vegas showgirl who marries a playboy and inherits his Beverly Hills mansion after he checks out. The cast also included James Cromwell and Dana Ivey.
The season after Frank’s Place, Wilson was back on CBS with The Famous Teddy Z, starring Jon Cryer as a talent-agency mailroomer who accidentally becomes its newest agent — despite knowing nothing about the business. It aired 20 episodes in 1989-90.
In the years between WKRP and Easy Street, Wilson wrote and directed a number of feature films. His first was the Burt Reynolds vehicle Stroker Ace, which Wilson followed up with — credit him or blame him — 1984’s Police Academy. He co-wrote that screwy comedy, which starred Steve Guttenberg, Kim Cattrall, Bubba Smith, Tim Kazurinsky and others as wannabe cops in training. It spawned more sequels than it probably should have, but Wilson was not involved in those.
In 1996, he helmed Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn in popular revenge comedy The First Wives Club, and Wilson also wrote and directed such 1980s and ’90s films as Rustlers’ Rhapsody, Burglar, Blast From the Past and Dudley Do-Right — the latter two starring Brendan Fraser.
Along with his six Emmy noms and one win, Wilson won a pair or Humanitas Prizes, for WKRP in 1978 and Frank’s Place in 1987.