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Frank Bonner, who played Herb Tarlek on ‘WKRP in Cincinnati,’ dies at 79

Frank Bonner and his wife Gayle
Frank Bonner and his wife, Gayle, in an undated photo.
(Desiree Boers-Kort)

Frank Bonner, who played the brash salesman with an affection for polyester plaid suits on the hit TV comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati,” has died at his home in Laguna Niguel.

Bonner died Wednesday of complications from Lewy body dementia, said his daughter, Desiree Boers-Kort. He had been diagnosed about three years ago with the disease, which leads to worsening mental and physical complications. The actor was 79.

“WKRP in Cincinnati” aired from 1978 to 1982 and 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, Jan Smithers and the late Gordon Jump, alongside Bonner as subpar ad salesman Herb Tarlek.

Loni Anderson, who played the station’s empowered receptionist Jennifer, said she was “heartbroken” over his death.

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“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.”

The show, about the colorful characters at a small, struggling station, hit home for many who worked in radio.

Boers-Kort said her father valued his time on the sitcom in part because it led him toward the career he favored over acting — directing. After taking on that job for six episodes of “WKRP,” he went on to direct for more than a dozen other 1980s and ’90s shows, including “Simon & Simon,” “Who’s the Boss” and “Saved by the Bell: The New Class.”

Bonner continued to act, including in the early 1990s sequel “The New WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” and “Night Court.”

“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 said Thursday. “He was very humble and down-to-earth, and just a nice, kind human.”

He got a kick out of Herb’s ill-advised wardrobe and kept some of the belts when the show ended, his daughter said. He was fond of them because he knew the character’s style was “one of the things that people loved about him.”

A native of Arkansas whose birth name was Frank Boers Jr., he was raised in the city of Malvern. An Arkansas Razorbacks mug was often seen on his “WKRP” desk. His Hollywood career began in the 1970s with the film “Equinox” and on TV dramas, including “The Young Lawyers” and “Mannix.”

Bonner is survived by his wife, Gayle Hardage Bonner, who was his high school sweetheart in Malvern. The pair reunited and eventually wed four decades later and after previous marriages for both, his daughter said.

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Other survivors include sons Matthew and Justine Bonner; stepdaughter DeAndra Freed; seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Bonner was preceded in death by his son Michael.


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