Comic who mas­tered art of play­ing clue­less char­ac­ters

FRED WIL­LARD 1933-2020

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - NATION - By Gina Piccalo Gina Piccalo is a Los Angeles Times writer.

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.

Richard Shotwell / As­so­ci­ated Press 2015

Fred Wil­lard per­fected his goof­ball per­sona in Christo­pher Guest mock­u­men­taries.

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