Frank Bonner, who played Herb Tarlek on ’WKRP in Cincinnati,’ has died

Actor Frank Bonner (right), who died Wednesday at age 79, was a regular on "WKRP in Cincinnati") playing Herb Tarlek, modeled loosely on real-life Atlanta radio sales guy Clarke Brown (left). C- FB, CBS
Caption
Actor Frank Bonner (right), who died Wednesday at age 79, was a regular on "WKRP in Cincinnati") playing Herb Tarlek, modeled loosely on real-life Atlanta radio sales guy Clarke Brown (left). C- FB, CBS

Credit: Facebook/

Credit: Facebook/

His character was loosely based on successful Atlanta radio salesman Clarke Brown.

Frank Bonner, the actor who played salesman Herb Tarlek on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” has died, his family confirmed to TMZ.

TMZ said Bonner died of complications from Lewy Body dementia. He was 79.

Bonner’s perpetually incompetent character on the classic CBS sitcom was loosely based on real Atlanta radio salesman Clarke Brown.

The show’s creator Hugh Wilson, who died in 2018, worked at Atlanta ad agencies from 1966 to 1976 and his idea of “WKRP” was modeled after Atlanta’s top 40 station 790/WQXI-AM, known at the time as “Quixie in Dixie.”

“WKRP” ran from 1978 to 1982 with middling ratings and generated one classic episode featuring a Thanksgiving promotion in which live turkeys were thrown out of a helicopter and created a disaster. The show did well in syndication in the 1980s, which led to a revived version of the show from 1991 to 1993.

Bonner was a regular in both versions of the show.

Wilson based several of the show’s character on actual people. Dr. Johnny Fever, played by Howard Hessemen, was based in part on WQXI jock “Skinny” Bobby Harper, who died in 2003. “Big Guy” Arthur Carlson, the bumbling general manager played by Gordon Jump (who died in 2003), was based on Jerry Blum, the long-time WQXI general manager, who died in 2019.

According to Blum’s son Gary, the Tarlek character was based more on Brown’s colorful visual style than his personality.

“Clarke Brown was a very, very snazzy dresser,” Blum said in an interview Thursday. “Guys usually wore gray or tweed suits. Brown would wear plaid suits with wide lapels and wide ties. It was cutting-edge fashion. Brown always wore fancy outfits. Hugh made him even gaudier.”

Brown himself had a less flattering image of his choice of dress wear at the time in an interview with me a few years back. “I dressed like a total schmuck,” Brown said. “But that was the fashion back then.”

In a follow-up text Thursday, Brown said he had met Bonner several times with Wilson. “Hugh actually stayed at my house when he was writing the pilot for the show,” Brown recalled. “I thought the obviously exaggerated portrayal of me was a lot of fun. When the show was in production, Hugh had me spend time with Frank and we got along great.”

While Tarlek was not deemed a great salesman, Brown was. “He was part of the sales dream team of the time,” Blum said, noting how WQXI minted cash during its heyday. “They were doing monthly million-dollar billings, unheard of on local radio at the time. They were a machine.”

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