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'WKRP' funnyman, Little Rock native Frank Bonner dead at 79

Actor loved directing even more by Eric E. Harrison | June 18, 2021 at 6:51 a.m.
Frank Bonner, photographed in 1996 at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, died Wednesday at age 79. (Democrat-Gazette file photo/Staton Briedenthal)

Frank Bonner, the actor and television director from Little Rock who showed off his Arkansas roots with a Razorbacks mug that sat on his desk at a struggling Cincinnati radio station on the TV sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati," died Wednesday. He was 79.

Born Frank Woodrow Boers Jr., Bonner's defining role was that of the brash, polyester-plaid-wearing ad salesman Herb Tarlek on the show, which ran on CBS from 1978-82 and still crops up regularly on cable.

Bonner died at his home in Laguna Niguel, south of Los Angeles, from complications of Lewy body dementia, daughter Desiree Boers-Kort told The Associated Press.

He had been diagnosed about three years ago with the condition, the second-most-common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer's disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"I'm deeply saddened to let you know that our beloved Frank Bonner passed away today at age 79," Boers-Kort wrote Wednesday evening in a post to a "WKRP in Cincinnati" Facebook group. "He loved his fans and was still signing autograph requests up until the last few weeks of his illness. Thank you to all who followed his career. He will be forever missed."

"WKRP in Cincinnati" was set in a lagging Ohio radio station trying to reinvent itself with rock 'n' roll. The cast included Gary Sandy, Tim Reid, Howard Hesseman and Jan Smithers.

Loni Anderson, who played the station's receptionist, Jennifer, said she was heartbroken over Bonner's death.

"Frank Bonner was like family," Anderson said in a statement. "He was one of the funniest men I had the pleasure of working with, and he was the nicest man I have ever known."

Bonner appeared in 88 of the 90 episodes of "WKRP" over four seasons. He also directed six episodes. He reprised his role in a 1990s spinoff, "The New WKRP in Cincinnati," and acted and directed in "Saved By the Bell: The New Class" in 1994.

His International Movie Database filmography lists guest-starring roles in several shows between 1982 and 2014. His TV directing credits included "The Mommies," "Family Ties," "Who's the Boss?," "Head of the Class," "Evening Shade" and "Harry and the Hendersons."

Boers-Kort said her father got a kick out of Herb's ill-advised wardrobe and kept some of the belts when "WKRP" ended. He was fond of them because he knew the character's style was "one of the things that people loved about him."

"He did prefer the behind-the-camera (work), and he thoroughly enjoyed helping people get to where he needed them to be for the scenes," Boers-Kort told The Associated Press. "He was very humble and down-to-earth, and just a nice, kind human."

Bonner was born Feb. 28, 1942, in Little Rock, and his family subsequently moved to Malvern. In a 1996 interview for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's High Profile section, Bonner said he decided at age 9 that he wanted to be an actor and, a decade later, used the Navy as a one-way ticket to the West Coast.

In the 1980s and '90s, Bonner acted in and directed shows at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock, including 1986's "Natural Disasters" with North Little Rock native Sally Sockwell and 1991's "Talking Things Over With Chekhov" with North Little Rock native Mary Steenburgen. Bonner directed "I'm Not Rappaport" at the Rep in 1990.

Bonner told the newspaper that he learned a valuable lesson on the set of "WKRP."

"One of the assistant stage managers said, 'Enjoy this, this is as good as it gets; it'll never get better.' And he was right."

Print Headline: 'WKRP' funnyman Bonner dead at 79

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