Tuesday, June 2, 2020
June 2, 2020

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Fred Willard was the special sauce in satire comedy

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Fred Willard, beloved American weirdo, colossus of eccentric normality, is gone. For an actor rarely cast in a lead role — he is probably best known for the improvisational ensemble films of Christopher Guest, including “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind” — the huge sense of cultural loss occasioned by his death Friday is remarkable. Not a character actor so much as a character who acted, he was always in some essential way himself. If you wanted a Fred Willard type you were going to have to get Fred Willard in: He was a secret ingredient, a special sauce, useful in all sorts of occasions and never out of demand. And we’ll never have that recipe again.

That isn’t to say that he didn’t have range, only that the variations in his performances were always on a theme of Fred Willard. You got two for the price of one: the actor and the role, the person and the personality, superimposed, inextricable. Encountering him onscreen was always a bit of a thrill, as if one had run into him on the street. (“It’s Fred Willard!”) Watching him, you perceived the practiced professional, but also a person who might have strayed onto a set, been handed a script — or not — and told, “Action.” Indeed, it’s evident just how useful and adaptable his talents were both from the quantity of his credits and their range, which ran from mainstream to fringe, comforting to transgressive, “Everybody Loves Raymond” to “”Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”

Willard was already over 40 when the mostly faux talk show “Fernwood 2 Night,” on which he played announcer-sidekick Jerry Hubbard to Martin Mull’s host Barth Gimble, made him (sort of) famous in the mid-1970s. Not that you could tell to look at him: Square-jawed, broad-shouldered, with good hair, a wide smile and bright eyes, he was boyish even as a senior citizen. (He could be coy about his age, interviews reveal; I can’t be the only person amazed to learn he was 86 when he passed.) Jerry Hubbard set a pattern for Willard characters to come — self-assured, well-fed, oblivious to criticism, dim. (“Did you ever wonder where weight goes when you lose it? Probably there’s a huge mountain of yellow fat they’re going to discover someplace, out where the elephants die or something,” Jerry asks a guest diet guru.) Willard and Mull would reteam several times over the years, including Mull’s “The History of White People in America,” as romantic partners on “Roseanne” and as robots in an episode of “Dexter’s Laboratory.”

Before “Fernwood,” there was a decade and a half of steady work, including the Greenwich Village comedy scene, a stint in Chicago’s Second City and the improvisational comedy group the Ace Trucking Company, which appeared often on variety and talk shows in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were guest shots on “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “The Love Boat” and “Love American Style.”

Afterward came “Spinal Tap” and the Guest films — a travel agent and community theater star in “Waiting for Guffman,” a clueless commentator in “Best in Show,” a sitcom actor turned folk group manager in “A Mighty Wind” and more — as well as roles in Steve Martin’s “Roxanne,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” the “Anchorman” movies, and “WALL-E.” Television appearances included “Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman,” “King of the Hill” and Scott Aukerman’s “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” which owed more than a little to “Fernwood.” He hosted the reality series “Real People” and Sid and Marty Krofft’s political puppet show “D.C. Follies.”A seven-episode stint on “The Bold and the Beautiful” earned him a Daytime Emmy in 2015. That is just the tip of a very large iceberg. The quality of projects varied over the years, but not the quality of the work.

Lately, and into this year there was a recurring role on “Modern Family,” as Frank Dunphy, father to Ty Burrell’s Phil, and regular appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” playing a variety of characters in topical skits (much as he had earlier done for Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show”). If Willard finally seemed a little age-worn, his Fred Willardness remained intact: He was upright, beaming, playful, odd, with a voice capable of reaching the last row in the theater: “Have you ever pulled a body out of the ocean, Jimmy?” he asked, as the captain of a cruise ship. “Sometimes they don’t have eyes.” Later this month, he’ll be seen in Greg Daniels’ Netflix satire “Space Force,” as the father of star Steve Carrell, casting so apt one wishes it had been thought of years ago.

Willard looked the part of a responsible adult — it is somehow not surprising to discover that he graduated from two separate military schools — but inside he was an amusement park, and not just the roller coaster and carousel but the haunted house and the hall of mirrors. The straighter the role, the more ironic Willard’s mere presence could seem; and yet he could be subtle and touching too. During his final appearance on “Modern Family,” in January, while skirting the deep end of a discussion that will be their last, he reaches out and reassuringly touches his son’s arm, a casual gesture and a beautiful moment.

There is an innocence about his characters, including the version of himself he brought to talk show appearances, talking a blue streak, making good but very often bad jokes, showing up on “Late Night With David Letterman,” where he was a frequent guest, with a knife sticking out of his chest. Even when they’re dodgy, Willard’s people are hard to dislike; the least of them are so comfortable in their skin, so excited by their inspirations, so confident in their philosophies that they somehow become more reassuring than worrying. (“He would say anything he was thinking,” Willard said of Jerry Hubbard. “If he got mad and pouted it would just be for a few seconds and he’d open up again.”) They leave you with the impression that somehow the everything is fine, even as it’s going off the rails, which makes this a particularly bad time to lose the man that gave them life.

Last year, in a memorable appearance on the Netflix sketch show “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson,” Willard, in an impertinent handlebar mustache, played a substitute organist at a funeral. His instrument was better fit for a circus and his performance included honking horns and breaking plates, as if it were the most appropriate thing in the world. He is all smiles.

“Keep going?” he asks. Yes, one would still like to answer.

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