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Remembering Frank Bonner’s Herb Tarlek: The Plaid Stallion Of Our Time

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Herb Tarlek could only exist in the seventies.

Be it his white shoes, the plaid jackets he was so fond of, sexually harassing the beautiful Jennifer Marlowe, and the fact he–oh my!–liked Disco, Herb was the late seventies. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he ever said “I’m okay, you’re okay” or “I need to take my pet rock for a walk.” He would say things “Hokay, fine” and always had a mirror at his desk to make sure he looked good. He was sales manager for WKRP, the lowest-rated radio station in Cincinnati. Tarlek was portrayed by the Arkansas-born actor, Frank Bonner, who made the character his own.

In 1978 Hugh Wilson created a sitcom about his experiences working at a radio station, capitalizing on what was popular in the seventies: workplace comedies. MTM, Mary Tyler Moore’s production company agreed to produce this new sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati. He knew that on the ensemble show there wasn’t going to be any stars so he cast mostly unknowns. One of them was Bonner, who had done guest-starring roles in Mannix and Love, American Style. Loni Anderson, who played Jennifer Marlowe, oncewrote that at first director Jay Sandrich was frustrated with Bonner’s performance. However, she pointed out Bonner was trying to figure out who Herb was, how to make the audience like him. It was easy to play an unlikeable person but it was harder to make an unlikable person likable.

And that’s exactly what Bonner did.

God love him, Herb was hard to like. Be it his clothes or mannerisms, he was grating. It also didn’t help he simply was bad at his job.

Oh sure, he sold ads, ads for the Shady Hills Rest Home, Gone With The Wind Estates, and Red Wigglers, the Cadillac of Worms. He made extra money selling insurance on the side but usually got the station money by blackmailing the advertisers with gossip he either heard during long lunches, plus getting kickbacks for getting the disc jockeys extra work helped, too. Yet Herb was at his best when he did try to do the right thing.

In the episode “Real Families” Herb and his family are profiled on an early reality TV show called yep, Real Families. Herb and everyone tried to put their best foot forward (mostly by telling the camera Herb was a “loyal husband, hard worker, and all-around fine human being” but the show managed to get some dirt on Herb (the infamous Turkey Drop of 1978, for starters). Herb finally has had enough. When the hosts told Herb they want to get to the truth, he explodes: “Truth? You mean what’s real? I’ll tell you what’s real. My life is boring. But you can’t show that because this is a TV show. You got to put on a lot of dirt so you can get the ratings and not get canceled. Now that’s real!”

He goes on to say :”Nothing on TV is real, not even the news!”

Truer words have never been spoken.

In true Herb fashion, he made up with the show when he found out his family was offered a free trip to Los Angeles.

Another moment was when he took advertisements for what he thought were diet pills, but it turned out the word diet was code for speed. Everyone at the station was upset, but Herb remained un-phased until a news report came to the station. Awkwardly, Herb went on the air and announced that a 15-year-old keeled over in his gym class and had the pills in his possession. “I guess what I, what I’m trying to say if I wouldn’t have sold these spots {if he had known it was speed}…I’m sorry we advertised this stuff, well we’re not going to do it anymore.”

Not being able to quit while he was ahead, he then went on to add: “… if you have a product you want to advertise, just call. My name is Herb Tarlek…” Bonner did the WKRP reboot in 1991, with white shoes and all. Yet because the show didn’t have original writer Hugh Wilson, it didn’t last long. He then had recurring roles on Just the Ten of Us and Saved by the Bell: The New Class. He also became known for directing episodes of The Mommies, Newhart, Head Of The Class¬†and Harry and the Hendersons.

When news came out last week that Bonner had died from Lewy Body Dementia at 79, a tweet came down the pike declaring that Bonner’s Tarlek was, “…the greatest Plaid Stallion of our time.”