Monday, May 18, 2020

The Late Great Fred Willard

Fred Willard, the comedian and actor well known for his collaborations with Christopher Guest and numerous appearances on television, died May 15 2020 at the age of 86.

Fred Willard was born on September 18 1933 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio. His father died when he was only 12 years old. After his mother remarried, young Fred Willard was sent away to military school. He later graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and served in the United States Army. While he was in the Army he played on the baseball team and he developed an interest in radio.

Mr. Willard studied at the Showcase Theatre in Manhattan and afterwards joined comedy improvisation troupe Second City in Chicago. He formed a comedy team with Vic Grecco. The two of them performed in coffee houses and even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Garry Moore Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Pat Boone Show. The team was successful enough that they were even offered a job on The Carol Burnett Show in 1967. Unfortunately, the team broke up. Fred Willard made his first appearance on narrative in television in an episode of the short lived sitcom Pistols 'n' Petticoats. In the late Sixties he also guest starred on the shows Hey, Landlord; Get Smart; and Love, American Style. He was a founding member of the improvisational comedy troupe the Ace Trucking Company in the late Sixties. The Ace Trucking Company were regulars on the variety show This is Tom Jones and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He made his move debut in a 1967 in the movie Teenage Mother. In the late Sixties he also appeared in the movies Model Shop (1969) and Jenny (1970).

In the Seventies, Fred Willard was a regular on the short-lived sitcom Sirota's Court and played the regular role of talk show host Barth Gimble's sidekick Jerry Hubbard on Fernwood 2 Night and its follow-up series America 2 Night. Mr. Willard appeared as a panellist on Hollywood Squares and was a co-host on Real People. He guest starred on the shows The Barbara McNair Show (with the Ace Trucking Company), The Bob Newhart Show, Karen, Good Heavens,m Laverne & Shirley, We've Got Each Other, Tabitha, The Jim Nabors Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,. and Sweepstakes. He also appeared in the mini-series Salem's Lot. He appeared in the movies The Harrad Experiment (1973. as part of the Ace Trucking Company), Hustle (1975), Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy (1976), Silver Streak (1976), Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), Americathon (1979), How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980), and First Family (1980).

In the Eighties Fred Willard was a regular on the short-lived show D.C. Follies. He guest starred on the shows The Love Boat, Mama's Family, SCTV Channel, Trapper John M.D., Spencer, Faerie Tale Theatre, George Burns Comedy Week, Fast Times, Fame, Out of This World, My Secret Identity, and Not Necessarily the News. He appeared in the movies Movie Madness (1982), Imps* (1983), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Moving Violations (1985), Roxanne (1987), and Portrait of a White Marriage (1988).

In the Nineties Fred Willard had recurring roles on Family Matters; Sister, Sister; Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman; Roseanne; and Mad About You. He provided voices for the animated TV shows Hercurles and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. He guest starred on the shows Murder, She Wrote; The Golden Girls; Harry and the Hendersons; Nurses; Married with Children; Dream On; The Ben Stiller Show; The New WKRP in Cincinnati; The Jackie Thomas Show; Dave's World; The Mommies; Murphy Brown; Friends; Clueless; Diagnosis Murder; Step by Step; The Weird Al Show; The Wayan Brothers; Sabrina the Teenage Witch; Oh Baby; Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place; City Guys; Just Shoot Me!; G vs. E; Love & Money; Ladies Man; and The Hughleys. He was a guest voice on The Simpsons. Mr. Willard appeared in the movies High Strung (1992), Waiting for Guffman (1996), Permanent Midnight (1998), Elvis Is Alive! I Swear I Saw Him Eating Ding Dongs Outside the Piggly Wiggly's (1998), Can't Stop Dancing  (1999), Idle Hands (1999), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), Dropping Out (2000), Chump Change (2000), and Best in Show (2000).

In the Nineties Fred Willard was a regular on the short-lived TV shows Maybe It's Me, A Minute with Stan Hooper, Back to You, and Betsy's Kindergarten Adventures. He had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond and was played the recurring role of Officer Brown on King of the Hill. He guest starred on the shows Bette, Ally McBeal, The Fighting Fitzgeralds, Girlfriends, Inside Schwartz, That's '70s Show, Watching Ellie, The Drew Carey Show, MADtv, Come On Over, Pushing Daisies, Free Radio, The Midnight Show, Chuck, and Glory Daze. He was a guest voice on several animated shows, including The Legend of Tarzan, Dexter's Laboratory, Family Guy, The Batman, Kim Possible, Grim & Evil, and The Boondocks. He appeared in the movies The Wedding Planner (2001), Teddy Bears' Picnic (2001), How High (2001), The Year That Trembled (2002), A Mighty Wind (2003), American Wedding (2003), Nobody Knows Anything! (2003), Killer Diller (2004), 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (2004), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Love Wrecked (2005), Date Movie (2006), Church Ball (2006), Ira & Arby (2006), For Your Consideration (2006), I'll Believe You (2006), Epic Movie (2007), Fighting Words (2007), I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007), Harold (2008), Scouts Honor (2009), Youth in Revolt (2009), School Gyrls (2009), A Very Mary Christmas (2010), and Holyman Undercover (2010). He was a voice in the animated films Chicken Little (2005), Monster House (2006), and WALL-E (2008).

In the Teens Fred Willard had recurring roles on the TV shows Versailles, Review, and Modern Family. He guest starred on the shows The Closer, In Gayle We Trust, Raising Hope, Rob, Breaking In, Hot in Cleveland, Easy to Assemble, Good Luck Charlie, Community, Family Tree, Drunk History, Good Morning Today, You'll Be Fine, Black Jesus, The Birthday Boys, The Bold and the Beautiful, Live from Lincoln Centre, Comedy Bang! Bang!, The 5th Quarter, The Odd Couple (2016), New Girl, Tim and Eric's Bedtime Stories, 9JKL, Corporate, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!. He was a recurring voice on the animated show The Loud House. He is set to appear in the TV show Space Force. Mr. Willard appeared in the movies Fred & Vinne (2011), The Magic of Belle Isle (2012), Max Rose (2013), Dealin' with Idiots (2013), The Birder (2013), Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013), The Yank (2014), All Stars (2014), Russell Madness (2015), Bachelors (2015), Fifty Shades of Black (2016), Here Comes Rusty (2016), Mascots (2016), Blood Type (2018), and The Bobby Roberts Project (2018).

Fred Willard was certainly prolific, with several careers both in television and in film. And he was certainly a master at improvisation, a skill he put to good use in his collaborations with Christopher Guest. While he could play a broad array of characters, Fred Willard's speciality was playing characters who were, as The New Yorker described them in a July 3 2006 article, "...gloriously out of their depth." In A Mighty Wind he played Mike LaFontaine, the folk group manager still living his glory days when he was on a now forgotten sitcom, Wha' Happened?. In Best of Show he played the none-too-bright dog show announcer Buck Laughlin, who thought Christopher Columbus captained the Mayflower and was puzzled as to why they didn't breed miniature schnauzers larger. in Waiting for Guffman he played travel agent Ron Albertson, cast in the lead of a community theatre production.

Of course, Fred Willard's career went well beyond his motion picture collaborations with Christopher Guest. He had an extensive resumé when it came to television.  On the Laverne & Shirley episode "Dog Day Blind Dates" he played Charles, Laverne's new gentleman friend who turns out to be something unexpected. On The Golden Girls episode "Dateline Miami," he played a former priest who is still a virgin and winds up on a date with the man-hungry Blanche. On the Nurses episode "Friends and Lovers" he played "Crazy Jim," a patient one of the nurses thinks is a doctor.

While Fred Willard played his share of dimwitted characters throughout this career, in reality he was a intelligent master of improvisation. And while many of his characters could be socially clueless, in reality Mr. Willard was a very kind man. In a tweet, Judd Apatow called him "...the sweetest person you could ever meet." Steve Carrell also said of Fred Willard, "He was a sweet, wonderful man." Here I must point out that it was not only celebrities who commented on Fred Willard's kindness. Fred Willard attended the TCM Classic Film Festival, among other events, and as a result I know quite a few people who have met him. All of them had the same thing to say about Mr. Willard--he was one of the kindest people one could ever meet. Fred Willard was both an incredible talent and a very nice man.

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