This one hurts. When Fred Willard passed away on May 15, we lost one of the greatest comic performers of all time. Willard, an early Second City performer who became an almost ubiquitous presence on TV in the ‘70s and ‘80s, spent most of his career playing glorious, deeply likable buffoons. Resolutely sure of their own rectitude, and far too comfortable in their own skin and with their own poorly informed opinions, Willard’s characters were an ideal parody of the kind of square-jawed, unnecessarily optimistic, and entirely too self-assured American men who easily and comfortably fail their way to success. Almost everything he ever said would crack an audience up, putting him in the absolute top echelon of comic actors. The word “legend” gets tossed around too often these days, but it absolutely describes Willard. To celebrate his amazing contributions to comedy, we’re looking back at some of his best roles, from his TV breakout in the ‘70s, to a show that will be released after his death.
Willard had been performing comedy for two decades before he really broke out on Fernwood Tonight. Already in his mid-40s at the time, Willard’s comedic persona was fully formed; his talk show sidekick Jerry Hubbard was a genial fool, a polite, earnest, overly confident foil to Martin Mull’s smug, flashy host. You probably weren’t going to get all that rich appearing on a short-run late night talk show parody in the late ‘70s, but more than his TV or stage appearances with various comedy partners and troupes, this is the role that helped Willard become a fixture on sitcoms, game shows and talk shows throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.—Garrett Martin
Syndicated TV could get pretty weird in the ‘80s. For example: here’s a political satire puppet show that’s extremely similar to a British hit that was best known in America from a music video for the band Genesis. Willard was the only human cast member, playing a bartender at a D.C. lounge where puppet versions of politicians, celebrities and other pop culture figures would regularly pop in. Willard always played his characters so straight that they could easily serve as both straight man and comic relief, and that skill shines in D.C. Follies, where his job is to support a bunch of over-the-top puppets.—Garrett Martin
More than anything else, Willard will be remembered for his roles in Christopher Guest’s improvised films. They were the purest distillation of Willard’s signature charm, that combination of absolute confidence and limited intelligence that can best be summed up as “doofy.” The typical Willard character is a big ol’ lovable doofus, and that’s basically what he played in all of Guest’s films.
After a small role in Rob Reiner’s 1982 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the spiritual forefather to all of Guest’s movies, Willard became a core part of Guest’s ensemble with 1996’s Waiting for Guffman. As Ron Albertson, the small-town travel agent / local theater leading man who partners in the office and on the stage with his wife Sheila (played by the equally great Catherine O’Hara), Willard introduced his genial goof act to a budding new generation of comedy nerds. He followed that up with what might be his most beloved role, oblivious dog show announcer Buck Laughlin in 2000’s Best in Show; in a tortured sports metaphor that Laughlin himself would probably love, if you created a comedy “batting average” that registered what percentage of a character’s lines were absolutely hilarious, Willard’s turn as Laughlin would probably be the all-time leader. Every single thing Willard says in this movie is amazing. That momentum carried over into 2003’s folk music parody A Mighty Wind, where Willard plays the flashy music manager Mike LaFontaine, and his role in 2006’s For Your Consideration as a braying entertainment news show host. His last collaboration with Guest was 2016’s Mascots, where he once again played a well-meaning but completely clueless buffoon.
With his time in the early days of Second City, and his long period of performing on stage throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Willard was a well-honed improvisational machine, and Guest knew he could always depend on him for something hilarious. In different interviews the two both mentioned how Willard would start a scene with no pointers or guidelines and kick off an inspired riff that’d make it into the final film, or generate an entire speech based on just a few words from Guest. Willard was perfect for Guest’s films, and Guest was smart enough to just let him go. Together they made some of the funniest moments in movie history.—Garrett Martin
Willard’s appearance as Ed Harken, the beleaguered station director of the Channel 4 News Team, shows just how much he thrived in running bits. Sure, he was instrumental in both firing and rehiring Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), but the best Harken moments came when he was on the phone dealing with his delinquent son, Chris. Resigned and world-weary, Ed talks his son down from holding a marching band hostage and negotiates with a nun who found Chris’ German porn. Willard pulled off the difficult feat of making one-sided phone calls a highlight of one of the oughts’ most beloved comedies.—Clare Martin
Willard was nominated for multiple Emmys for his recurring guest spot on Everybody Loves Raymond, where he played the uptight, WASPy father-in-law to Brad Garrett’s character. The main reason to seek out Willard’s episodes is to see him play off another actor with a massive personality, Peter Boyle, who played Garrett’s father. The clash of Willard’s Protestant decorum and Boyle’s Italian brazenness would’ve felt hackneyed if it wasn’t brought to life by two such superlative performers. Willard also got to work with Chris Elliott on the show—a one-of-a-kind meeting of two very different but very hilarious comedians.——Garrett Martin
Thanks to the present pandemic, it’s more obvious than ever just how hacky and milquetoast the writing is on most late night talk shows. However, Willard’s appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (which he went on over 90 times) and Jimmy Kimmel Live always provided a breath of zany fresh air. He guested on the former as Willard J. Fredericks, an eccentric expert on various subjects, though sadly most of these clips can’t be found on YouTube. However, there are plenty of Jimmy Kimmel Live Willard videos to be enjoyed, from his spot as the CEO of Big Penis to his unlikely turn as Falcon Heene, aka Balloon Boy. Whoever the character, Willard consistently stole the show and kept us in stitches.—Clare Martin
The thought of live-action clips in a Pixar film may sound like sacrilege, but considering that Willard’s best performances resembled real-life cartoons, there was no one better suited to appear in WALL-E. Short clips throughout the film showed him as Shelby Forthright, the scarily happy-go-lucky CEO of Buy-N-Large who orchestrated the plan for humankind to leave the planet via spaceship while the environment was restored. Willard’s frenzied, unwavering positivity as Forthright has a dark edge to it, coming across as a little Black Mirror for a children’s film and highlighting just how much range he could bring to a short performance.—Clare Martin
In case there was any doubt, Willard’s guest appearances as Frank Dunphy, Phil’s (Ty Burrell) father, proved that goofy optimism runs in the family. While his Modern Family stint garnered him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor back in 2010, one of Willard’s most touching appearances in the show also happens to be his final one in the 2020 episode “Legacy.” Phil goes to visit his father in Florida, concerned after hearing that Frank had wandered to the grocery store he used to run and feeling guilty for not carrying on the family business. “Well, you did take over the family business, didn’t you?” Frank remarks to his son. “Keeping life light, making it fun for everybody.” We could say the same of Willard.—Clare Martin
Okay, it’s one sketch, and it only lasts for a couple of minutes. Fred Willard’s surprise appearance as a substitute funeral organist who was apparently hired from a local TV station’s 1960s clown show—or perhaps from a Vaudeville theater that inexplicably survived into the 21st century—is an inspired, side-splitting delight. If this had been his last role, it would’ve been a perfect capstone to an unforgettable career.—Garrett Martin
Willard’s last role is in Netflix’s Space Force, which will be released on May 29, a couple of weeks after his death. It’ll be a bittersweet sight for his fans—he plays a proud old man who’s slowly losing his mind but doesn’t want to admit it. But, y’know, funny. Despite the sadness inherent in seeing a favorite actor visibly winding down their life and career on the screen, Willard’s few moments are among the show’s best. (Paste will have more on Space Force next week.)—Garrett Martin