Fred Willard’s death

Fred Willard, the Emmy Award-nominated comic actor best known for his scene-stealing roles in Christopher Guest’s improvised ensemble film comedies like “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman” and on sitcoms like “Modern Family” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” died on Friday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86. His death was confirmed by his agent, Mike Eisenstadt. No specific cause was given.

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Who is Fred Willard?

Fred Willard

Frederick Charles Willard Jr. was born on Sept. 18, 1933, in Cleveland, the only child of Frederick Willard, who worked in finance, and Ruth (Weinman) Willard. He grew up in Shaker Heights, the affluent suburb.

After his father died and his mother remarried, Fred Willard was sent to military school. He later graduated from Virginia Military Institute and served in the Army, playing on its baseball team — a dream come true. “I always wanted to be a baseball player,” Fred Willard once told an interviewer. But he was also an avid radio fan and thought that show business might be an interesting — and easy — career.

Career

He studied at the Showcase Theater in Manhattan and spent a year working in Chicago with the Second City, the comedy improvisation troupe. He and a comedy partner, Vic Grecco, began performing in coffee houses and worked their way up to appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

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Willard and Grecco were even offered a job on “The Carol Burnett Show” when it was new (1967), but Mr. Grecco decided he wanted a new partner, and the deal fell through. Mr. Willard later worked with the Ace Trucking Company, a five-member comedy troupe.

He made his television debut on “Pistols ’n’ Petticoats” (1966) a short-lived western sitcom starring Ann Sheridan. His first film was “Teenage Mother” (1967), an exploitation film so misguided that he once saw a theater audience boo his character’s attempt to stop a rape.

By 1969, Fred Willard was appearing in the prestigious Off Broadway production of Jules Pfeiffer’s “Little Murders.” But it was not until 1977, when he was cast in “Fernwood 2 Night,” Norman Lear’s high-satire spinoff of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” that he grabbed the spotlight. His character, Jerry Hubbard, was the bright-eyed, restlessly eager announcer-sidekick of Barth Gimble (Martin Mull), the host of a small-town TV talk show.

 

Over the years Mr. Willard became a favorite among real-life talk-show hosts, making at least 50 guest appearances in sketches on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” He also did nine on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” including one appearance as Fred Trump visiting from hell to discuss his son Donald.

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Fred Willard appeared in more than 700 films and television movies and episodes over a half-century. His films included “Fun With Dick and Jane” (1977), “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (1999) and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004). He played an Air Force colonel giving a heavy-metal band a tour of a military base in Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984). That was where he met Mr. Guest, who played a member of the band.

His television career included a co-host’s job on “Real People”; guest appearances on comedy hits from “Laverne & Shirley” to “Community;” a story arc on “Roseanne” (1995-97) as the lover of his former co-star, Mr. Mull; and a two-year run (1987-89) on “D.C. Follies” as the bartender, whose customers were played by puppets of the rich and powerful.

Fred Willard’s last film was “The Bobby Roberts Project” (2019), a mockumentary about an ignorant young film director. In his final television role, on the Netflix series “Space Force,” which will begin streaming this month, he plays the frail father of the new military branch’s leader (Steve Carell). (Coincidentally, Mr. Willard also starred in “Space Force,” a 1978 television movie about the comic adventures of astronauts on a remote space station.)

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Fred Willard was married to Mary Lovell, a playwright, from 1968 until her death in 2018. His survivors include a daughter, Hope Mulbarger, and a grandson.

He was not the kind of actor who swore he would never retire. “The fun of acting is when you get the job — and then reality sets in,” like having to get up at 6 a.m., he said in a 2012 interview for the Archive of American Television. In the same interview, he was asked to name his proudest life achievement. The interviewer suggested the award nominations perhaps. No, said Mr. Willard. It was “teaching my daughter to catch a fly ball”.

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