Fred Willard, Actor Known for Comically Dimwitted Characters, Dies at 86
Art and Experience: Fred Willard, the comic actor known for his genial but dunderheaded characters, has died. He was 86.
Willard died Friday night at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes. Willard’s daughter, Hope Mulbarger, said the actor died “very peacefully.”
“He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much,” Mulbarger said. Willard has a role in the upcoming Netflix comedy series “Space Force” opposite Steve Carell.
Willard was married for 50 years to Mary Willard, a playwright and collaborator with her husband. She died in 2018 at the age of 71.
After getting his start in improv comedy with Second City, Fred Willard was an astonishingly ubiquitous presence especially on TV but also in movies for decades, almost always in small but memorable roles.
The New York Times said in 2008: “He has become the king of the deadpan cameo, the guy who makes a one-shot appearance as an office manager or furniture salesman and ends up stealing the scene.”
Willard was nominated four times for Emmy Awards, three of them (in 2003, 2004 and 2005) for playing Hank on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and the fourth in 2010 for his recurring role as Frank Dunphy, the father of Ty Burrell’s Phil Dunphy, on “Modern Family.” Willard’s character received a loving sendoff during “Modern Family’s” final season with a January 2020 episode that revealed his death.
In 2015 Willard won a Daytime Emmy for a story arc as John Forrester on “The Bold and the Beautiful”; he had previously been nominated in 1986 for outstanding talk or service show host for “What’s Hot, What’s Not.”
The actor was long associated with improvisational comedy, going back to his days at Chicago’s Second City in the 1960s and continuing with his small role in Rob Reiner’s documentary-style “This Is Spinal Tap.” Willard was also a co-founder of the Ace Trucking Company improv troupe, which made numerous appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and “The Dick Cavett Show” in the 1960s and ’70s.
In 2015, “Spinal Tap” co-star Harry Shearer declared of Willard’s work on the film: “He’s from another galaxy; you just can’t fathom where this stuff comes from. His energy is overpowering” — and the Christopher Guest-directed comedic mockumentaries “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000), “A Mighty Wind” (2003), “For Your Consideration” (2006) and 2016’s “Mascots,” in which a great deal of improvisation was utilized. The Detroit Free Press opined in 2014: “ ‘Best in Show,’ with Willard playing a color commentator at a prestigious dog competition, is perhaps the best-loved” in this string of cult hits. The New York Times said that to play the “blissfully ill-informed dog show television announcer in ‘Best in Show,’” Willard “trotted out every inappropriate dog joke and announcing cliché he could muster, drawing rave reviews and reinvigorating his career.” The role “brought a cachet, buoyed by the YouTube and Nick at Night reruns of his old ‘Fernwood Tonight’ appearances, unlike anything Mr. Willard experienced in the first 30 years of his career. He suddenly became cool.”
(Willard’s improv-related activities also included hosting the TV series “Trust Us With Your Life” in 2012 and appearing at the Detroit Improv Festival in 2014.)
The actor’s notable film roles also included Shelby Forthright, the hugely optimistic CEO of the Buy n Large Corporation, in Pixar’s much-beloved “Wall-E” (2008), who is shown only in videos recorded at about the time of the Axiom ’s initial launch; Ed Harken, the news director of KVWN, in 2004’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”; Dr. Willoughby, the medical school dean who interviewed Kal Penn’s Kumar in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004); and the father of Alyson Hannigan’s Michelle Flaherty in 2003’s “American Wedding” (Roger Ebert said, “Rising to toast the union between his Irish family and the Jewish family of his new in-laws, he brings real warmth and sincerity to his hope that ‘we can sit many happy shivas together’ “).
It really all began for Willard when he played Jerry Hubbard, dimwitted sidekick to Martin Mull’s talk show host Barth Gimble on the wickedly satirical, Norman Lear-created TV series “Fernwood Tonight” and “America 2-night” in 1977 and 1978. These shows were spinoffs from the seminal, Norman Lear-produced soap opera spoof “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
Willard and Mull reteamed on the 1985 HBO mockumentary “The History of White People in America,” then were reunited on a 1995 episode of “Roseanne” to play one of the first gay couples on television, and Willard recurred on the show after that.
He was the only human actor — the bartender — on Sid and Marty Krofft’s “D.C. Follies,” a political satire populated with puppets of presidents Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon and reporters Dan Rather and Ted Koppel, among others. The series ran on ABC from 1987-89.
Willard recurred on “Everybody Loves Raymond” from 2003-05 as Hank MacDougall, the father of Monica Horan’s Amy MacDougall-Barone, who eventually becomes the wife of Brad Garrett’s Robert Barone.
He appeared in Christopher Guest’s HBO series “Family Tree” — an attempt to adapt his documentary-style comedy for television — in 2013.
The comic actor made dozens of appearances in sketches on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and more recently was a frequent presence on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
In interviews Willard did not appear to be someone with lingering regrets, but he admitted that he wished he hadn’t turned down the lead role of Ted Striker (eventually played by Robert Hays) in the hit comedy “Airplane!”
Frederick Charles Willard was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated from the Kentucky Military Institute and the Virginia Military Institute. After a brief tour in the Army in 1962, Willard and friend Vic Greco formed a comedy act that earned them a 1964 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Willard auditioned successfully alongside Robert Klein for Chicago’s Second City, portraying a nightclub manager and his employee. In this period he also co-founded the Ace Trucking Company; the troupe appeared regularly on ABC variety series “This Is Tom Jones” in 1969.
Willard and Second City colleagues including Klein and David Steinberg appeared Off Broadway in “The Return of the Second City in ‘20,000 Frozen Grenadiers’ ” in 1966. Willard also appeared Off Broadway in 1969 in Jules Feiffer’s hit comedy “Little Murders” (which was adapted into a film) and “Arf/The Great Airplane Snatch,” in which he appeared with Lily Tomlin, among others.
Willard made his film debut in the 1967 exploitation film “Teenage Mother.”
The actor guested on “Get Smart” in 1968, “Love, American Style” in 1970 and “The Bob Newhart Show” in 1975, and he appeared in the feature comedies “Silver Streak,” starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, in 1976 and “Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), starring Jane Fonda and George Segal, but it was on “Fernwood Tonight” and “America 2-Night” that he created the genial, empty-headed and often inappropriate persona with which he remained associated throughout his professional life.
Willard told the New York Times in 2008: “I like to play the guy that has no self-awareness, kind of the likable buffoon who will stick his foot in his mouth and say the wrong thing.”
In 2015 he adapted this persona for use in a series of commercials also starring Jeffrey Tambor for DirecTV in which Willard played the witless head of a cable company that merges with Tambor’s.
Willard sold out the run of his nominally one-man show “Fred Willard: Alone at Last!” (which actually sported a number of other cast members) and led sketch comedy workshop the MoHo Group.
In 2006 Willard starred Off Broadway in “Elvis and Juliet,” an original comedy written by Mary Willard, about the first meeting of an engaged couple’s families, one of which is a clan of Vegas “tribute artists.”
In 2014 Willard appeared as Cap’n Andy in a semi-staged production of “Showboat” at Lincoln Center that also featured Vanessa Williams, Jane Alexander and the New York Philharmonic.
Willard’s survivors include Mulbarger, a son-in-law and grandson.