The Best of Fred Willard

Five essential performances from the brilliant comic actor

Not everyone knew the name Fred Willard, but anyone who watches TV and movies knew that face: square-shaped and perfectly American, as if carved from a giant block of the sturdiest, most appealing Wisconsin cheddar.

The Ohio native, who died Friday at the age of 86, built a long career, dating back to the 1960s, of glad-handing, loudmouthed characters in hundreds of projects, from This is Spın̈al Tap and Christopher Guest’s mocumentaries to Pixar’s WALL-E, and Modern Family, where he might have reached his largest audience in a long-running guest role as Phil Dunphy’s father, Frank.

Willard elevated material frequently as the kind of ringer who could give a line reading an extra punch of energy and confidence to sell an otherwise unremarkable script. And he had a sparkling reputation in the entertainment industry, where he worked again and again with collaborators who recognized his comedic talents.

Fred Willard

I had the fortune to meet Fred Willard once, in 2003, when my comedy troupe The Latino Comedy Project performed in California on the same bill at Willard’s Hollywood Players as part of the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival. We were a bunch of South Texas punks with a fast-paced, multimedia sketch show, his group was comprised of longtime character actors, including his wife Mary, with an average age of about 60. But the old-school material they performed was sharply executed and very funny; Willard himself was warm and welcoming, inviting us to come in for pictures backstage after the show.

He kept performing sketch comedy for many years to come, recently appearing on Second City’s “The Last Show Left On Earth.” Take a look at how focused and well-timed Willard can be, even at 86, in undermining an aspiring actor. “Don’t answer that question,” he says at one point, “just do better.” Watch how he plays to the camera, giving a knowing glance now and then, letting the audience in on every joke. It’s not the best script, but it’s a typically perfect Willard performance.

 

Willard will be remembered for many, many performances, all special in their own way. But here are five that show some of his evolution from up-and-coming comic actor to American institution.

Fernwood 2Night

 Most comedy nerds view this as Willard’s breakout role, as co-host with Martin Mull of a parody talk show from Norman Lear and Alan Thicke. As Jerry Hubbard, Willard played the clueless Midwesterner, a type he would portray again and again for years. Notice how he’s able to nail a moment of gravitas and then puncture it dismissively. And also check out his hunky good looks; it’s easy to imagine a universe where Fred Willard would have been a career soap opera star or TV news anchor instead of a character actor.

Waiting for Guffman

Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman” was just one exampling showing how well Willard could gel with the right scene partners, such as this phenomenal restaurant scene with Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and Linda Kash. As Ron Albertson, Willard played it blustery, but sweet, one of Guest’s hilariously unselfconscious heroes.

Best in Show

Perhaps the best example of Willard’s scene-stealing skills is his turn on Guest’s dog-competition comedy, where as Buck Laughlin, he plays a TV commentator who really doesn’t know much at all about dog judging. Paired up with the perfect straight man, Jim Piddock, Willard provides the biggest laughs in the movie with his off-color color commentary.

WALL-E

As the global CEO of the world’s largest company, Shelby Forthright, Willard appears only in video dispatches that show his character was partly responsible for a botched cleanup of Earth that kept off-world humans from returning home. Notably, Willard is the only character in any Pixar film to appear as a live-action character.

Modern Family

Fred Willard had an 11-year run on the ABC sitcom and earned an Emmy nomination for the well-case role (he previously picked up some Emmy nominations for a role on Everybody Loves Raymond) of Ty Burrell’s dad. The two actors share a similar comedic energy and delivery, making it easy to believe they could be father and son.

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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