In 1963 I was working backstage at Second City and heard Fred Willard introduce a scene by saying ‘Let’s take a sleigh ride through the snow-covered forests of Entertainment.’ That was my first encounter with Greatness, and I knew it was my destiny not to become, in the tradition of my family, a labor lawyer.
Fred Willard first had success in comedy as part of a duo with Vic Grecco, kicking off a career that would span over sixty years, moving from appearances as Willard & Grecco on late-night shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, to a solo career on the stage (and ultimately Second City), to film and television. His first film appearance didn’t land until he was 33 years old, playing “Coach” in 1967’s Teenage Mother. One of his earliest TV acting appearances was as a Control agent-in-training on a season 4 episode of Get Smart.
His real breakthrough, though, came on the delightfully absurd and pointed Fernwood 2 Night (occasionally just styled Fernwood Tonight), a spoof of a local late-night talk show set in the already-existing fictional universe of soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. On it, he plays Jerry Hubbard, somewhat dim yet ambitious sidekick to Martin Mull’s host Barth Gimble, himself rather self-satisfied and disdainful of most people. Having watched some of it again in preparation for this obituary, I have to say that it still holds up; part of it is the very novelty of doing such a meta-fictional and satirical show nearly 45 years ago, but Mull’s big-fish-in-small-pond attitude and contempt for ordinary people hold up very well (and presaged the same in such characters as Kent Brockman and Krusty the Klown), and, well, if Willard’s amiable dopiness and gift for delivery weren’t timeless, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. (Jerry is a bit different than many of Willard’s famous roles, in that he’s more willing to fire barbs back at Barth; he just isn’t as good at it.)
Willard bounced around mostly in smaller roles or guest spots for a while until Christopher Guest gave him a shot to showcase his gifts to a bigger audience; Willard’s gifts for improvisation and delivery, and ability to create avunclar, clueless, and ridiculous characters who still seem real, perhaps were never finer displayed than here. Guest cast Willard in each one of his parodies, from This Is Spinal Tap all the way through For Your Consideration, although I think it was his Best in Show role, as Buck Laughlin, dog show commentator with a penchant for inane and inappropriate (but harmless) tangents, that really broke him through. His catchphrase from A Mighty Wind is quite arguably the most memorable aspect of that film (and of course gives us the header image for this article). From there, he became a mainstay in our 21st century comedy, with roles in How High, Anchorman, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, among others; his TV appearances include everything from A Minute With Stan Hooper to Raising Hope to Undeclared to Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! And of course he was the only choice to play Phil Dunphy’s dad on Modern Family.
You’ll see a lot of tributes to Willard today and in the coming days precisely because of that avuncularity. Willard– especially considering how many of his best roles came in his 60s or later– always came across like our cheerful uncle or grandpa who doesn’t know how inappropriate he’s being but still loves all of us. He managed to combine being incredibly funny and having a one-of-a-kind, irreplicable gift for the right line, with a sense of warmth and cheer, even when his characters got angry. (“Damn it! Who put a question mark on the teleprompter?”) His very presence became a marker of quality, knowing nobody could do the role better and that at least you’d enjoy his performance no matter what else was going on.
Some of his final roles included guest spots on some of my favorite recent shows, always with that uniquely Fred Willard affably clueless touch: An old-school, out-of-touch executive with a penchant for irrelevant, hilariously inappropriate anecdotes on Corporate; Forrest MacNeil’s father-in-law on Review; and, in the I Think You Should Leave sketch of the same name, New Joe, the substitute organist at a funeral who has no concept of how inappropriate for the occasion his calliope music is. He also had a brief run on The Bold and the Beautiful in 2014-15, the kind of stunt casting I adore.
He’s listed as a regular in season 1 of the upcoming Space Force, which will now be his last role, as the father to Steve Carell’s… whatever they call the head of the Space Force. Funnily enough, Willard was one of the leads of a 1978 TV movie also called Space Force. I wonder what he would’ve thought of that. Or, more to the point, what line he would’ve come up with about that.
Fred Willard was 86; his wife Mary died in 2018 after 50 years of marriage. He is survived by a daughter, a grandson, and, and I say this without even a trace of irony, in all of our hearts.