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|Also Known As:||Died:||May 15, 2020|
|Born:||September 18, 1933||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||Shaker Heights, Ohio, USA||Profession:||actor, comedian, TV host|
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Best known for his buttoned-up professionals with no sense of their own cluelessness, actor Fred Willard emerged from the 1960s improv scene to become a critic's favorite and an admired comedy veteran. After earning an initial cult following as the dimwitted sidekick of talk show host Martin Mull in the cutting-edge parody "Fernwood 2-Night" (syndicated, 1977-78), Willard fans generally caught glimpses of the actor in character roles as self-assured and wildly incorrect authority figures in unremarkable film and television comedies. But his supporting roles in the "mockumentary" style films of Christopher Guest, beginning with "This is Spinal Tap" (1984), truly showcased Willard's unique gifts for creating memorable middle America characters largely through on-camera improvisation. Among his most beloved Guest-directed performances were that of a dog show sports commentator unschooled in the sport in "Best in Show" (2000) and as an overbearing entertainment news host in "For Your Consideration" (2006). Willard also received acclaim for guest-starring stints on "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS, 1996-2005) and "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997), which, to the delight of pop culture historians, allowed him to...
Best known for his buttoned-up professionals with no sense of their own cluelessness, actor Fred Willard emerged from the 1960s improv scene to become a critic's favorite and an admired comedy veteran. After earning an initial cult following as the dimwitted sidekick of talk show host Martin Mull in the cutting-edge parody "Fernwood 2-Night" (syndicated, 1977-78), Willard fans generally caught glimpses of the actor in character roles as self-assured and wildly incorrect authority figures in unremarkable film and television comedies. But his supporting roles in the "mockumentary" style films of Christopher Guest, beginning with "This is Spinal Tap" (1984), truly showcased Willard's unique gifts for creating memorable middle America characters largely through on-camera improvisation. Among his most beloved Guest-directed performances were that of a dog show sports commentator unschooled in the sport in "Best in Show" (2000) and as an overbearing entertainment news host in "For Your Consideration" (2006). Willard also received acclaim for guest-starring stints on "Everybody Loves Raymond" (CBS, 1996-2005) and "Roseanne" (ABC, 1988-1997), which, to the delight of pop culture historians, allowed him to work again with Fernwood's Martin Mull. Because of his gift for improvisational comedy, Willard remained a frequent late night guest while continuing to work steadily well into the next millennium.
Born on Sept. 18, 1938 in Shaker Heights, OH, Willard was an athletic teen who groomed himself for a career in the military, spending most of his high school years at the Kentucky Military Institute, before going on to graduate in 1955 with a bachelor's degree in English from the Virginia Military Institute. After two years of service in the U.S. Army, Willard was ready for a lifestyle change, so began pursuing a career as a comic actor. He moved to New York City to study acting and while there, formed a comedy team with actor Vic Greco. The duo achieved enough positive word-of-mouth that they were booked on the famed "Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971) and Steve Allen's syndicated talk show. In 1965, Willard moved to Chicago, IL where he joined the fledgling Second City theater, learning the fundamentals of improvised comedy while appearing in regional comedy and musical productions, as well. In 1966, the Second City troupe traveled to New York to perform off-Broadway in "The Return of Second City in 20,000 Frozen Grenadiers."
Back in New York during the late 1960s, Willard stayed busy onstage in comedic plays by the formidable Wendy Wasserstein, then playwright and his future wife Mary, and Jules Feiffer, who wrote "Little Murders" (1969), with the latter play providing one of the more important introductions of his career to fellow cast member, Christopher Guest. Willard relocated to Hollywood and kept his focus on sketch comedy and improv, playing with the Los Angeles arm of the notorious San Francisco improv group, The Committee, while acting as co-founder of the group Ace Trucking Company, which made appearances on "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1954- ) and the variety show "This is Tom Jones" (ABC, 1969-1971). He was tapped to be a regular on the short-lived sketch comedy series "The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour" (ABC, 1973), before making guest appearances on sitcoms like "The Bob Newhart Show" (CBS, 1972-78), "Laverne & Shirley" (ABC, 1976-1983) and "Sirota's Court" (NBC, 1976-77), where he had a recurring role as an ambitious and vain district attorney.
Willard made his first big impact on television in a spin-off of the daring comedy "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" (syndicated, 1976-77) called "Fernwood 2Night," a fictional talk show broadcasting from Hartman's fictional small Ohio town of Fernwood. In reality, the show was a highly sophisticated spoof of late night talk shows where Willard played the enthusiastic, but doltish sidekick Jerry Hubbard to the show's put-upon host Barth Gimbel (Martin Mull). For better or worse, the ironic humor was way ahead of its time. "Fernwood" and the following year's revamped version "America 2Night" (syndicated, 1978), left at least half the audience wondering if the cheap sets, cut-rate guests and ingratiating host banter were real, while the other half howled at its clever send-up of American popular culture. Both shows were only on air for two seasons, but became instant and memorable cult classics. Meanwhile, Willard's parodying of a television host led to his breakout gig as one of several hosts on "Real People" (NBC, 1978-1984), which segued into stints on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) before returning to sidekick duties on Alan Thicke's short-lived late night talk show, "Thicke of the Night" (syndicated, 1983-84).
On the big screen, Willard began to build a reputation as the go-to guy for characters inspired by his lengthy time in military training, officious bureaucrats with "no self-realization." He certainly personified the notion in "This is Spinal Tap" (1984), playing an army lieutenant welcoming "Spinal Tarp" to their ill-fated gig at a military base. He went on to star as an American everyman in Martin Mull's hilarious television mockumentary, "The History of White People in America" (1985, 1986). Willard continued to make his mark in suits and ties as the town mayor in "Roxanne" (1987) and a sleazy insurance salesman in "High Strung" (1991), while appearing in a steady stream of scene-stealing guest spots on "Married... With Children" (Fox, 1987-1997), and "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004). Willard appeared in recurring roles as a school vice principal on "Family Matters" (ABC, 1989-98) and the U.S. president on "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" (ABC, 1993-97), before fans were thrilled to see him reunite with Martin Mull in a hilarious role as the diner owner's lover on the groundbreaking sitcom, "Roseanne."
Willard returned to theaters in Christopher Guest's revered ensemble mockumentary, "Waiting For Guffman" (1997), the story of a regional theater production in the fictitious small town of Blaine, MO. Willard was afforded his most screen time in years and sparkled in his largely improvised turn opposite Catherine O'Hara as husband and wife travel agents who audition for the town musical in matching jogging suits. Incidentally, neither travel agent had ever been outside of Blaine. Following a supporting role in the drug drama "Permanent Midnight" (1998), Willard enjoyed a recurring role as Jamie's (Helen Hunt) boss on "Mad About You" (NBC, 1992-99) before Guest recruited him to play a sports commentator for the dog show-themed comedy, "Best in Show" (2000). Willard scored his biggest success to date in another largely improvised performance as an announcer at a prestigious annual dog show whose cockiness and unfamiliarity with the sport leads to wildly inappropriate patter, including the comment "and to think, in some countries these dogs are eaten." The film was another instant comedy classic and Willard earned an American Comedy Award for Best Supporting Actor, as well as nominations from the New York Film Critics and the National Film Critics Societies.
With his widely hailed performance, Willard was more in-demand than ever. He was continuously invited to lend his unique style to "Ally McBeal" (Fox, 1997-2002), "Maybe It's Me" (The WB, 2001-02), and voiceover roles on "Family Guy" (Fox, 1998- ), "Dexter's Laboratory" (Cartoon Network, 1996-2003) and "Kim Possible" (Disney, 2002-07). He was also a semi-regular on Julia Louis-Dreyfus' avant-garde sitcom, "Watching Ellie" (NBC, 2002-03) and Norm Macdonald's short-lived "A Minute with Stan Hooper" (ABC, 2003-04). In 2003, he launched one of his best recurring roles, playing opposite Georgia Engel as Robert's (Brad Garrett) straight-laced in-laws, Hank and Pat McDougal, on the hit sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond." He received an Emmy nomination for his first season with "Raymond," then appeared in Guest's latest feature mocumentary, "A Mighty Wind" (2003). In this folksie outing, Willard received slightly less screen time as a sitcom star-turned-folk group manager with a fondness for recycling his old TV catch phrases. He also added to the merriment of the "American Pie" sequel "American Wedding" (2003) with an amusing turn as the uptight father of the secretly perverted band geek, Michelle (Alyson Hannigan).
After his second season on "Raymond," which earned more raves and a second Emmy nod, Willard appeared in the Will Ferrell comedy "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" (2004), where he refined his idiot broadcaster routine to comic perfection. In 2005, Willard was one of dozens of comics who participated in the documentary "The Aristocrats," a study of an age-old (and filthy) show business joke that comics had been improvising and tailoring to their own style for decades. Back to family fare, Willard scored a third Emmy nomination for his final season on "Raymond," then voiced characters in Disney's "Chicken Little" (2005) and "Monster House" (2006). He appeared in the crowd-pleasing, but critically reviled parody "Date Movie" (2006), before moving on to little-seen indie films like "Ira and Abby" (2006) and "I'll Believe You" (2006). Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration" (2006) found him back in familiar territory as a rambling, egotistical co-host of an evening entertainment show in this Hollywood send-up. His performance was praised as the best thing in an otherwise disappointing film that lacked the insight and subtlety of Guest's earlier creations.
The veteran of parody appeared in the box office hit, but critical misfire "Epic Movie" (2007), after which Willard returned to television where he was perfectly cast to once again play a dim bulb of a sports anchor on the Kelsey Grammer sitcom, "Back to You" (Fox, 2007-08). The following year, Willard became the first live action actor to appear in an animated Disney-Pixar film, following his role in "Wall-E" (2008), where he was suited to play the smooth-talking CEO of the corporation responsible for polluting the earth to the point of being uninhabitable. Turning back to teen sex comedy, Willard appeared in the film adaptation of the young adult novel, "Youth in Revolt" (2010), which he followed with a notable guest turn on the new hit sitcom, "Modern Family" (ABC, 2009- ), playing the father of Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell). For his work, he earned an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. Following rare turns into dramatic territory with episodes of "Castle" (ABC, 2009-16), "Chuck" (NBC, 2007-12) and "The Closer" (TNT, 2005-12), Willard returned to familiar territory with a guest starring role on the single-camera comedy "Raising Hope" (Fox, 2010-14), on which he played a former high school teacher who gives Jimmy (Lucas Neff) a hard time during G.E.D. class.
On the big screen, Willard had character parts in such offbeat films as "Expecting Mary" (2010), an indie dramedy that made its debut at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. He went on to serve as the host of the improvisational comedy series, "Trust Us with Your Life" (ABC, 2012), which featured comedians Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie and others acting out scenes from the lives of each week's guest stars, including the likes of Ricky Gervais, Jerry Springer and Florence Henderson. As that series entered hiatus, he served as host of the PBS series, "Market Warriors" (2012), an "American Pickers"-like program that featured nationwide treasure hunts. But the job barely lasted a few weeks, as Willard suddenly became the subject of embarrassing headlines following his arrest on July 18, 2012 for allegedly engaging in a lewd act while patronizing an adult theater in Hollywood. As a result, he was fired from "Market Warriors" the next day despite assertions made through his attorney that he was innocent of the charges. Willard was offered the opportunity to avoid a criminal trial by attending a counseling program, but the actor continued to insist he had done nothing wrong.
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"I have to continue to stay motivated at being successful in movies and television so I can get invited to more celebrity softball games and golf tournaments". --Fred Willard quoted in his Comedy Central bio for "Access America", 1990.
On working improvisationally in the Christopher Guest films "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show": "It is quite scary. you have to do your homework and you have to come prepared. It's not just free-form improvisation like you'd see in a comedy club. You know exactly who your character is and you know exactly where the scene is going to begin and end. And Chris knows exactly what he wants. I never heard him say, 'Oh no, you're on the wrong track.'" --to Daily News, September 24, 2000.
Director Christopher Guest on casting Fred Willard as a zany commentator opposite British actor Jim Piddock's perfectly proper announcer: "You need Jim's reality for Fred to bounce off of, because Fred is on another planet in every respect." --quoted in Entertainment Weekly, October 13, 2000.
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