When Police Academy arrived in 1984, it was a phenomenon. And it went onto spawn a huge comedy franchise. Sadly, the man behind making the original a true classic has passed away. Director Hugh Wilson died from unknown causes. He was 74 years old at the time of his death.
Not only is Hugh Wilson responsible for dropping Police Academy on the world, he also created the classic sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, which debuted in 1978. And he helmed the popular comedy movie The First Wives Club. The filmmaker and TV producer died this past weekend in Albemarle County.
Hugh Wilson got his comedy start writing for TV in the 1970s. He first worked on The Bob Newhart Show and the Tony Randall Show before creating WKRP in Cincinnati. The show aired for four successful seasons on CBS between 1978 and 1982, and still lives on in syndication. The series followed the ups and downs of a struggling radio station, with Gary Sandy playing a ratings hungry director trying to whip his team into shape as popular radio made the transition from AM to FM. The show was never a top ratings earner, but it did get nominated for a Best Comedy Series Emmy three consecutive times. It lost twice to Taxi and once to Barney Miller, all of which were a little more serious than the traditional sitcoms you saw in the 80s leading into the 90s.
A writer and executive producer on the show, Wilson would try and revive the sitcom in the 90s with The New WKRP in Cincinnati which brought back some of the original cast. It briefly aired in syndication. Wilson would continue to work in TV, also creating the sitcoms Frank’s Place and Easy Street. He also worked on the Jon Cryer sitcom The Famous Teddy z.
But it was on the big screen where Hugh Wilson found his true calling. Between WKRP and Easy Street, he would write and direct a number of popular comedy movies. Before doing Police Academy, he collaborated on the script for Burt Reynolds’ 1983 stock car laugher Stroker Ace. Then came the defining moment in his career, as he co-wrote and directed Steve Guttenberg and Kim Cattrall in the original Police Academy, which launched one of Warner Bros.’ most popular franchises in the 80s. The comedy chronicled a group of cops in training, and was followed by 6 other sequels, which he was not involved with. Police Academy also spun-off into a 1988 animated series that lasted for two seasons and 65 episodes. And then in 1997, there was a live-action sitcom based on the movies. It lasted for 26 episodes in syndication. Key and Peele have been developing a remake, but not much has been said about it in more than a year since it was originally announced. In 2016, President Bill Clinton named Police Academy his favorite movie.
In 1985, Wilson directed Tom Berenger in the Western Comedy Rustler’s Rhapsody, which paired him back up with Police Academy mainstay G.W. Bailey. Then in 1987 he directed Whoopi Goldberg in Burglar, which gave him an opportunity to work with comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, who did not star in the original Police Academy movie, but would appear in the sequel as Biker Zed, who later becomes a recruit in Police Academy 3 and eventually a full blown cop in Police Academy 4 before bowing out of the series.
Hugh Wilson too a six year break from directing movies following Burglar. He would return to TV, continuing to work on some of his more successful shows. Wilson then returned to feature films in 1994, directing and also co-writing the script for Guarding Tess, which allowed him to work with Nicolas Cage, playing a secret service agent assigned to protect a former first lady played by Shirley MacLane. He followed that up with his next big hit The First Wives Club, which united Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton.
In 1999, he would direct Brendan Fraser and Alicia Silverstone in Blast From the Past, following that up the same year with another Brendan Frazer comedy Dudley Do-Right, based on a segment from the popular Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. He directed his final movie in 1994 with Mickey starring musician-turned-actor Harry Connick Jr. He leaves the world with his final script The First Force, which is a direct nod back to Police Academy. It is a comedy about the first police squadron in the Middle Ages put together by a rag tag team of outlaws, wizards, dancers, slaves and girls that dress like men. It has not been produced yet.
Hugh Wilson was known for giving himself cameos in all of his movies. He was married to Charters Smith. The couple shared three children. Hugh Wilson was a big contributor to the 80s comedy movie genre and scene. He will be missed. RIP, the godfather of Police Academy. Deadline first reported on the director’s passing.