Fred Willard was one of the most recognizable comedic actors of his time appearing in over 60 films and countless television programs during his decades-long career. Known primarily for his appearances in mockumentaries and guest spots on the small screen, Willard was a scene-stealing comedic juggernaut even when he wasn’t the most prominent star as he always served as a standout element to any movie or TV episode thanks to his comedic charm. Sadly, the world lost Willard over the weekend on May 15, 2020 of natural causes leaving behind a legacy of hilarity that will live on in his most iconic works and even films where he was probably the only good thing about them. Today in honor of a man who has always made me laugh even at his worst it’s time to take a look at the career of the funny man himself. This is In Memoriam: Fred Willard.
Born Frederick Charles Willard in Cleveland Ohio on September 18, 1933 Willard lived his young life with his mother after his father died in 1951 when he was only 12-years-old. Raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Willard went on to graduate from both the Kentucky Military Institute and the Virginia Military Institute in the early and mid-50s serving in the U.S. Army. After graduating he would discover his love for acting when he moved to the New York in the late 50s appearing in a production for the local YMCA. It was then that he met Vic Grecco, a man who would become his comedic partner, and the two formed a comedy duo touring on several shows including The Dean Martin Show and The Tonight Show. Sadly, the two would split in 1968, one year after Willard made his movie debut.
In 1967 Willard appeared in his first film, “Teenage Mother”, but continued to embrace stage performing throughout the rest of the decade and the early 70s. One of his earliest performing gigs was at The Second City in Chicago before he formed the comedy group Ace Trucking Company which led to his return on The Tonight Show where the group performed sketches over 50 times. The 70s were when Willard found true success in cinema and television. In 1977 and 1978 the comedian rose to mainstream prominence on the satirical soup opera “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and in a parody of nighttime talk shows called “America 2-Night”. Parodies would become a staple of Willard’s career in the years to come. Throughout the latter half of the 70s Willard appeared in six feature films including “Hustle” and “Fun with Dick and Jane” while further establishing himself on television through shows like “Real People” (which ran from 1979 to 1984), “Salem’s Lot”, and an appearance on Saturday Night Live as a host.
The 1980s saw Willard appear in 20 television shows and specials starting with “Real People” and going on to include “The Love Boat”, “Fast Times”, “Fame”, and “What’s Hot, What’s Not” which he hosted earning him a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Talk Show Host. In cinema Willard added seven feature length films to his credit. Among the highlights were “National Lampoon’s Movie Madness”, “Roxanne” and “Family First” but possibly the most iconic feature from that decade was “This is Spinal Tap” which solidified Willard and a mockumentary mainstay. Another highlight 80s performance came in the form of the character Tom Osborne in the short film “Ray’s Male Heterosexual Dance Hall” which went on to earn an Oscar. In the 90s Willard appeared in eight more films, including four in 1999 alone, mostly in the comedy genre. “High Strung”, “Idle Hands” and “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” further pushed Willard into the public eye while “Waiting for Guffman”, one of his most celebrated collaborations with mockumentary filmmaker Christopher Guest, continued his reputation as probably the most iconic mainstream mockumentary actor. The 90s also saw Willard appear in over 35 television shows including guest spots in iconic programs like “The Simpsons”, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman”, “Friends”, “Family Matters”, “Married…with Children”, “The Golden Girls” and others.
One of Willard’s most critically acclaimed performances came in yet another mockumentary in the year 2000, “Best in Show”, another Christopher Guest product. The decade proved to be Willard’s most active yet in feature films appearing in at least one movie a year from 2000 through 2008 including a career-high five movies in 2006. His contributions to cinema ranged from romantic comedies like “The Wedding Planner” to drama like “Killer Diller”, ridiculous comedies like “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and “Anchorman”, animated films like “Chicken Little”, “Wall-E” (in a live action appearance) and “Monster House”, genre parodies like “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie”, and of course mockumentaries including the aforementioned “Best in Show” and yet another Christopher Guest product “A Mighty Wind”. On the small screen Willard continued to be a mainstay appearing in a wide variety of productions including animated shows like “Hey Arnold!”, “Dexter’s Laboratory”, “King of the Hill” and “Family Guy” which introduced him to new audiences both young and old as well as sitcoms like “That ‘70s Show” and “Everybody Loves Raymond”. His reputation as a modern comedic legend also made him a popular guest star on shows like “Mad TV”, “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and others.
Willard opened the 2010s with one of his most well-known TV appearances to modern audiences, a 13-episode appearance in Modern Family during its Emmy nominated 2010 season. Willard maintained his status as a small screen staple with appearances in a wide variety of programs like “Castle”, “Chuck”, “Funny of Die Presents”, “The Closer”, “Raising Hope”, “The Cleveland Show”, “Community”, “Drunk History”, “The Bold and the Beautiful”, “Hell’s Kitchen”, “New Girl” and several episodes of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”. In fact, Willard was probably more prominent on television in the 2010s than at any time in his career appearing in around 50 different television programs, at least one a year throughout the decade. His big-screen career was much less active during that time. After a few films in 2010 he provided voice work for the straight-to-video “Scooby-Doo” film “Legend of the Phantosaur” in 2011 and had a single appearance on the big screen in 2012 with “The Magic of Belle Isle”. He returned with most of the cast in 2013 for “Anchorman 2” and continued to show up in big screen and independent productions amassing 16 film roles from 2010 through 2016. His final big screen role would come in 2018’s “The Bobby Roberts Project” while his final small screen appearance is scheduled to be a recurring posthumous role in the upcoming Netflix show “Space Force”.
Outside of film and television Willard was a devoted husband to his wife Mary Lovell who passed away in 2018. The two had a daughter, Hope, who later gave them a grandson. While Willard’s life was mostly free of major controversy his one notable brush with infamy came in July of 2012 when he was arrested on suspicion of engaging in a misdemeanor lewd act while in an adult theater on Santa Monica Boulevard. While no charged were filed due to a lack of proof of the act the incident caused PBS to fire Willard from the show “Market Warriors” and led him to open up about the incident on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” where he called it “embarrassing” and “painful”. Despite no charges being filed Willard was forced to take a sex education diversion program.
Fred Willard will long be remembered as one of the most enjoyable and, possibly, underrated comedic actors of his time. I will always remember him for his roles in iconic comedies like “Anchorman” and “Austin Powers” which were staples of my childhood and teenage years as well as for being the ONLY thing I enjoyed about “Epci Movie” (his parody of Aslan was actually pretty amusing) but others will remember him for his countless appearances on television or his reputation as a mainstay of the mockumentary genre. Willard established success through simple but effective comedic timing and a respect for the craft that only the special talents can truly capture. He was a true comic legend whose vocal talents and comedic style branched out to entertain both adults and children alike through a variety of genres. Willard was a diverse performer who certainly left his mark on the industry. The world has lost a truly funny man.