Comic who mastered art of playing clueless characters
FRED WILLARD 1933-2020
LOS ANGELES — Fred Willard was an improv comedy master whose star shone brightest in the satire of writerdirector Christopher Guest, playing a goofball so straight it wasn’t always clear he was in on the joke.
Willard died Friday evening in Los Angeles of natural causes at 86, his agent Mike Eisenstadt said.
In the 1996 film that launched him into the mainstream, “Waiting for Guffman,” Willard was a smalltown amateur actor opposite Catherine O’Hara. With utter sincerity, the duo auditioned in matching tracksuits with a Taster’s Choice commercial performed to the 1973 hit song “Midnight at the Oasis.” It killed.
“Fred has the patent on characters who are comfortable in their stupidity,” Guest once noted.
Born Sept. 18, 1933, Willard cultivated his wisecracking straight man persona as the son of a stern father who worked in a bank. He was raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and fell in love with sketch comedy after seeing the 1950s vaudeville silliness of bandleader Spike Jones and the City Slickers.
By 1977, Willard was appearing with Martin Mull as host of a shortlived parody talk show, “Fernwood 2 Night,” created by Norman Lear. That led to another brief hosting gig for the NBC reality series “Real People.”
But it was Willard’s mastery of the mockumentary, starting with the 1984 film “This Is Spinal Tap,” that first earned him widespread notice. And though it was years before the film reached cult status, Willard had discovered his place.
He spent the 1980s and ’90s bouncing around TV with a few notable recurring parts, including as Mull’s gay partner in “Roseanne.”
In Guest’s 2000 comedy “Best in Show,” Willard earned enduring success as an overthetop dog show host. Willard’s boneheaded — and improvised — remarks to his prim cohost became one of the highlights of the film.
After that, Willard appeared in higherprofile film roles, in the 2004 Will Ferrell comedy “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and its 2013 sequel.
He spent three seasons on the hit CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” earning three Emmy Award nominations. And in 2009, Willard began as an occasional guest star on the ABC series “Modern Family.”
Willard would go on to appear in three more of Guest’s mockumentaries, “A Mighty Wind” in 2003, “For Your Consideration” in 2006 and the Netflix film “Mascots” in 2016.
Fred Willard perfected his goofball persona in Christopher Guest mockumentaries.