Comic Actor Fred Willard Dies at 86

A veteran of over 300 movies and TV shows, comic character actor Fred Willard fit in with any genre.

Fred Willard I Think You Should Leave
Photo: Netflix

Fred Willard, best known for his roles in Best in Show, This Is Spinal Tap, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Modern Family, died of natural causes at the age of 86, according to Variety.

“It is with a heavy heart that I share the news my father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old,” his daughter Hope Willard tweeted on Saturday. “He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”

Willard first came into national consciousness as the sidekick to Martin Mull’s host on the nightly Fernwood 2 Night. He is well known as part of the revolving troupe of actors – including Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy – assembled by director Christopher Guest.

“How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard’s gifts,” Guest’s wife, actress Jamie Lee Curtis wrote to Twitter. “Thanks for the deep belly laughs Mr. Willard.” She also included a clip of one of Willard’s scenes in Best in Show.

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Guest’s comedies, like Waiting for Guffman, For Your Consideration and A Mighty Wind relied on the actors’ skills at improvisation. Willard was always reliable. He appeared in more than 300 movies and TV shows. Besides memorable roles in This Is Spinal Tap, Anchorman, Modern Family, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Willard often stole films with a single scene. The New York Times called him “the king of the deadpan cameo.”

Frederick Charles Willard was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio on September 18, 1933. His father, also named Fred Willard, died when the actor was 12 years old. After graduating from the Kentucky Military Institute in 1951, Willard served in the Army.

Willard moved to New York in the late 1950s and began appearing on stage. He met Vic Grecco, who would go on to be Willard’s long time comedy partner, while they were performing in a YMCA production of Desperate Hours. Willard & Grecco played the comedy clubs in Greenwich Village, and toured. They also appeared on The Dean Martin Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Tonight Show. As Lundy, Agent 198, on the Get Smart episode, “A Tale of Two Tails,” Willard and his partner showed you didn’t need to utter a single word to get a laugh. The team broke up in 1968.

Willard was part of Chicago’s Second City players, which included Robert Klein and David Steinberg in his tenure. He was also one of the founders of the improvisational comedy group Ace Trucking Company. The group performed over 50 sketches on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. They also were regular performers on This Is Tom Jones.

Willard went back and forth between TV and film easily throughout his career. His first film role was in Teenage Mother, a 1967 exploitation film. He also had bit parts in films like Model Shop (1969), Jenny (1970), The Harrad Experiment (1973), Chesty Anderson (1975), and Silver Streak (1976). For television, he appeared in episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, and Good Heavens.

He played in the film Fun with Dick and Jane in 1977. This was the same year Willard joined the cast of Norman Lear’s talk show parody, Fernwood 2 Night as Jerry Hubbard. The series ran as a summer replacement for the groundbreaking soap opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. He reprised the role on the spinoff Forever Fernwood and when the fictional talk show went “national” on America 2-Night. Willard and Mull also teamed for the 1985 TV mockumentary The History of White People in America. Willard reunited with Mull on the Roseanne show in 1995. Mull’s character Leon Carp had been a long time regular character. Willard became a recurring character during the show’s last two seasons as Leon’s romantic partner Scott. They were married in the episode “December Bride.” They also reunited as robots in an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory.

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In 1979, Willard played Larry Crockett in director Tobe Hooper’s TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. He also was part of the original cast of NBC’s Real People. That same year, Willard played Vincent Vanderhoff in Americathon. Based on a play by Firesign Theatres’ Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman and narrated by George Carlin, the cult film featured top comic actors and a musical performance by Elvis Costello.

For 80s television, he appeared on The Love Boat, Mama’s Family, and Trapper John, M.D. In 1986, was nominated for a daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Talk Show Host for the show What’s Hot, What’s Not. He won a Daytime Emmy in 2015 for his role as John Forrester on The Bold and the Beautiful. Willard appeared in 100 sketches on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He also hosted Saturday Night Live in 1978, and appeared twice on MADtv.

In film in the 80s, Willard appeared in First Family, National Lampoon’s Movie Madness, and Moving Violations. In 1987, he played Tom Osbourne in the 1987 Oscar-winning short film Ray’s Male Heterosexual Dance Hall, and Mayor Deebs in Roxanne, which starred Steve Martin. He also played straight man as the bartender on Sid and Marty Krofft’s political puppet TV show D.C. Follies.

He played Air Force Lt. Bob Hookstratten in Rob Reiner’s mock-documentary classic This Is Spinal Tap (1984). Written by Reiner, along with Guest, McKean, and Harry Shearer, the film forged its own comedy group. Willard was nominated for an American Comedy Award and a Funniest Supporting Actor from the Screen Actors Guild for his role in Guest’s 1996 directorial debut, Waiting for Guffman. Willard’s role as Buck Laughlin in Best in Show won him an American Comedy Award, the Boston Film Critics Award, a Sierra Award and a tribute from AFI.  In 2013, Willard joined McKean, as well as Ed Begley Jr., in Guest’s HBO documentary-style comedy Family Tree.

Willard hosted Access America on the Ha! Comedy Network in 1990. He guest-starred in three episodes of Sister, Sister, as Carl Mitushka, a high school teacher. In 1999, Willard did the voice for travel agent Wally Kogen on The Simpsons‘ “Sunday, Cruddy Sunday” episode. Willard played Dave Campbell, a semi-regular character on Family Guy as well as Officer Brown in King of the Hill. He had a semi-recurring role as the “Boogey Man” on The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, starring on an episode and the movie Billy & Mandy’s Big Boogey Adventure and appearing in Billy & Mandy: Wrath of the Spider Queen.

Willard played the father of five children on Maybe It’s Me from 2001 to 2002. In 2007, He played a sportscaster on Fox’s Back to You, appeared on the children’s TV series Come on Over, and guest-starred on an episode of The Boondocks.

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In later movies, he appeared in American Wedding, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, voiced Dad in the animated film Monster House. In 2012, he played Al Kaiser in Rob Reiner’s The Magic of Belle Isle. In 2013, he starred in The Birder.

On stage, he appeared in Off-Broadway productions of Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin; Arf, directed by Richard Benjamin; Wendy Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic; and Elvis and Juliet. Willard acted in a Chicago run of Call Me Madam. He played in Los Angeles regional theater in the musicals Promises, Promises, with Jason Alexander, and Anything Goes, with Rachel York. Willard starred in the “one man show” Fred Willard: Alone At Last!, which actually had a cast of twelve. The show won Los Angeles Artistic Director Awards for Best Comedy and Best Production.

Willard was nominated for four Emmy Awards. Three were for his recurring role as Hank MacDougall on Everybody Loves Raymond, the fourth for his recurring role as Frank Dunphy on Modern Family. On Sept. 16, 2011, Willard was honored as Pioneer in Comedy at Burbank International Film Festival.

Willard stars alongside Steve Carell in Netflix’s upcoming series Space Force, which begins streaming on May 29. Willard previously starred in an unrelated TV movie called Space Force, which aired in 1978.

Willard’s wife Mary, who he married in 1968, died on July 13, 2018. He is survived by his daughter Hope and grandson Freddie.