Fred Willard has died. One of the finest minds of multiple generations of comedy superstars, Willard was almost always one of the funniest parts of more than 300 projects—perhaps most prominently in Christopher Guest’s Best In Show and A Mighty Wind, but also literally hundreds of other endeavors—in a comedy career that stretched across nearly 6 decades of television and film. Barreling into almost any scenario imaginable with a comic energy that frequently outpaced performers 40 years his junior, the Ohio native projected warmth and chaos into everything he touched in equal measure. Per Rolling Stone, he died yesterday of natural causes, at the age of 86.
After a stint in the military, Willard got his start in comedy in the New York theater scene, forming an early comedy duo with Vic Grecco; their partnership would lead to Willard’s earliest TV appearances, on multiple episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963. Not long after, Willard spent a year at Chicago’s venerable Second City, versing himself in improv and sketch. But despite the fact that he’d spend much of his career (most notably the Guest comedies) ad-libbing like few in the business could, Willard’s heart always remained with sketch: Here he is in a 2009 interview with us about his preference for pre-planned comedy: “I’ll go in a minute to see a sketch show. I love sketch; it’s my favorite form. But if it’s all improv, they’re either very good and it’s annoying how good they are and it makes you feel bad, or they’re not too good then you’re sweating for them.”
Willard first broke into TV comedy in a serious (albeit brief) way with Fernwood 2 Night, Norman Lear’s wonderfully weird 1978 send-up of late night talk. Paired with Martin Mull as the hosts of a small-town talk show, Willard introduced America to one of the prototypical Fred Willard characters: Announcer Jerry Hubbard, a former kids show host who never let the lack of thoughts in his head get in the way of cheerfully expressing them at every possible opportunity. As the eternally well-meaning Jerry, Willard made obvious several of the traits that would make him a comedy star: A gift for saying the dumbest thing possible with absolute and unshakeable conviction, an effusive happiness undimmed by the contempt of others, and an enduring sense of being the most pleasant person in any given TV room. In fact, Fernwood was big enough that Willard ended up hosting Saturday Night Live in 1978; meanwhile, he and Mull would continue to work together for large chunks of the rest of their careers, including a memorable turn as a same-sex married couple on the final (original) season of Roseanne.
The “Fred Willard character” archetype now firmly established, Willard worked relentlessly through the ’70s and ’80s, popping up in everything from The Love Boat (thrice!) to the TV adaptation of Fast Times At Ridgemont High. And almost always, with that same winning combination of blind confidence and harebrained ideas:
It would be easy to dismiss the majority of Willard’s characters as variations on the “dumb guy” template. But to do so would miss the genius with which he infused his creations, and which convinced audiences to actually care about his cavalcade of dopes. It’s one thing to be a doofus; it’s another to invest that doofus, not only with the belief that everything’s going to turn out great, but also the conviction that everything already has. (There’s also the matter of knowing exactly the right dumb thing to say to get a laugh, something Willard excelled at.) It’s that quality that comes through most clearly in his numerous roles with Christopher Guest, a series of films (from Waiting For Guffman up through 2016's Mascots) that launched Willard from well-liked TV actor up into the heights of comedy superstardom.
In our 2012 Random Roles interview with him, Willard laid out the philosophy that informed so many of his Guest roles (and guest roles) over the years; mentioning that he assumed that much of his part as color commentator Buck Laughlin in Best In Show would end up getting cut, he decided, “I’m gonna say everything that comes to my mind. I’m not going to hold back if I have a thought, I’m gonna do it.” The end result is a bit like being subjected to the ramblings of an incredibly cheerful madman—in the best way imaginable.
Best In Show marked a turning point in Willard’s career. It wasn’t so much that he hadn’t always been a reliable comedy engine in anything he was cast in; it’s just that now pretty much everyone in Hollywood knew it, too. The last 20 years only accelerated the pace at which he worked, with a resumé absolutely teeming with voice parts, guest star roles, and major appearances in TV and film—including the notable distinction of being the first live-action performer to appear in a Pixar movie, playing the face of all-consuming consumerism in 2008's WALL-E.
At some point, any recounting of Fred Willard’s career is destined to descend into a listing of favorite bits: His turn as a would-be astronaut on Review; his recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond; the inappropriately cheerful organ player he played on last year’s I Think You Should Leave. Isolating “the best” Fred Willard roles is an exercise in futility—but also a thoroughly enjoyable one.
Ongoing, too: Willard will be appearing in Netflix’s upcoming comedy series Space Force, which will actually be the second such series with that title on his CV. (The other being a little-seen TV comedy movie from his Fernwood days.) He only recently wrapped up his long run as patriarch Frank Dunphy on Modern Family, and was continuing to work right up through the time of his death. He leaves behind a legacy as one of the most consistently hilarious people operating across nearly 60 years of TV and film; it’s simply, staggeringly rare to be that funny, in that many things, for so incredibly long. And it’s unusual, when talking about a performer who died in his 80s, to bemoan the loss of their future great performances; in that way, as in many others, Fred Willard was one-of-a-kind.