Howard Hesseman Is on a Drugless High, and Living One Day at a Time

I love to work—period,” says Howard Hesseman. Luckily, he has a lot of work to love. Only a year ago he wrapped four smash seasons and won himself a cult as Dr. Johnny Fever, the psychedelic deejay of CBS’ WKRP in Cincinnati. Now he’s putting a spin on the network’s eight-year-old One Day at a Time series. Cast as Sam Royer, a free-spirited architect, he made prime-time history last week by finally marrying the show’s long-manless divorcée Bonnie Franklin. This week, in the season finale, the newlyweds head off to honeymoon until next fall.

But Hesseman, 43, has had more than his One Day appearances (at $25,000-plus each) to keep him busy. At present he is onscreen as a likable pimp named Smooth in Dan Aykroyd’s Doctor Detroit. In recent months he has hosted two of NBC’s Saturday Night Live shows and appeared in a segment of ABC’s Nine to Five. He’s also found the love of his aging-flower-child life. She is Caroline Ducrocq, 34, a pixieish (5’1″, 96 pounds) French-born actress who arrived in Los Angeles in 1981 after 12 years in New York’s off-Broadway theaters. So drastically has the twice-divorced Hesseman’s life-style changed that he bought a home—the first he ever owned—in the Hollywood hills, and is mumbling domestic-sounding clichés about how “life gets richer as it goes along.”

It was “instant attraction,” says Caroline of their first meeting two years ago at a party. She also remembers Hesseman gleefully saying “he wasn’t going to fall in love again” and her responding “I think that is very sad.” Before he met Caroline, Hesseman’s life was as unhinged as some of the characters he plays. He was born in Salem, Oreg., an only child whose father was an auto-parts salesman and part-time musician. His parents divorced when he was 5, and when his mother later married a policeman, Howard had a hard time accepting his stepfather.

He calls himself “a late bloomer. I cut my six-year molars when I was 9. I was 24 when I decided to pursue acting with a vengeance, and even then I had no idea what that entailed.” He had shown a flair for drama in high school, and after a couple of desultory years at the University of Oregon he drifted to San Francisco. There he took the pseudonym Don Sturdy and latched onto the Committee, the Bay Area improvisation group that spawned such comics as Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall. Acting offers poured in after that, but Hesseman’s personal life remained a mess. “It was the 1960s, and we were going through a number of extraordinary experiences,” he says, drily recalling his “pharmaceutical experiments in recreational chemistry.” He also experimented with marriages to a Hawaiian-born dancer and a woman who made jewelry, plus a relationship with a divorcée that “went on for years and wasn’t working.”

When he met Caroline, his mother was dying of cancer. Caroline’s father, a theater and film critic, had died from the disease, and she gave Howard much-needed support. A month after his mother’s death at Hesseman’s home in 1982, Caroline moved in. There was and is a complication: While Caroline is separated from her husband, actor Robert Dunn, they haven’t divorced. “I had trepidations about becoming involved with a married woman,” Howard admits, “but both she and her husband have assured me their relationship is finished.”

Off camera, says Caroline, Howard is “serious, intellectual, soulful” and, best of all, drug-free. He admits he was “fairly heavily” into cocaine when he met her, but insists, “I haven’t used drugs of any kind for two years now. There was a time I never thought I’d hear myself say that.”

Hesseman and Ducrocq have teamed up to do a spoof of film documentaries that will be shown on the Playboy Channel and perhaps other cable networks. But both still avoid talking marriage. “When I was young,” says Howard, “I had the sense that I was always on the verge of grasping the one fact or idea that would open up everything to me. I know now that what we already understand is what we’ve got to work with.” In life as on TV, Hesseman takes things one day at a time.

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