With his light comedic touch, Fred Willard, who died Friday at 86, made getting laughs seem effortless.
His string of now-familiar characters — a daffy late-night sidekick, a blundering dog show announcer — were exaggerated extensions of himself. They were obviously goofier and less self-aware than the real-life Willard was, but they evinced the same kind and cheerful manner he displayed in interviews and on talk show couches.
It wasn’t until he stepped outside of his comedy comfort zone that his talent became more clear — when he played the rigid, religious Hank MacDougall on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” for instance, earning three Emmy nominations. In his later years, Willard had entered a dad phase — playing fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers (or all three, as he did across all 11 seasons of “Modern Family,” which also earned him an Emmy nomination).
Despite the awards recognition, Willard had more range than those sitcoms suggest. His next (and last) show, “Space Force,” won’t be available on Netflix until later this month. Fortunately, much of his best work is streaming right now.
The Christopher Guest Collaborations
Some of Willard’s greatest roles came in the improvised mockumentaries he did with the writer, director and actor Christopher Guest and a recurring company of players including Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and Michael McKean.
In the first of these, Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984; rent it on Fandango, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu and YouTube), he had only a bit part as an Air Force lieutenant guiding the titular rock band around a military facility for an upcoming performance. In “Waiting for Guffman” (1997; stream it on Vudu), he played a more substantial role as one half of a wonderfully ridiculous husband-and-wife team (with O’Hara) who worked as small-town travel agents but harbored dreams of stardom. (One of Willard’s major laugh-lines came in describing his need for penis reduction surgery.)
In “Best in Show” (2000; stream it on Sundance Now), Willard stole all his scenes as an oblivious dog-show color commentator. Willard modeled his voice beats after the Westminster Kennel Club announcer Joe Garagiola, but the inappropriate jokes — “And to think that in some countries, these dogs are eaten” — were all his.
In “A Mighty Wind” (2003; rent it on Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu and YouTube), Willard played the manager of a singing group who is trying to relive his own past (and to revive a onetime catch phrase, “Hey, wha’ happened?”). In the film “For Your Consideration” (2006; stream it on Vudu), Willard played an easily distracted entertainment journalist trying to interview the cast of a low-budget film.
The thing all of these characters had in common was a lack of self-awareness — Willard’s specialty.
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Norman Lear’s mock cable-access talk show, set in the fictitious town of Fernwood, Ohio, ran for only one season in 1977. But it memorably extended the deadpan surrealism of Lear’s mock soap opera, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Willard was cast as Jerry Hubbard, the cheerfully dimwitted sidekick of the host Barth Gimble (Martin Mull), whose weaponized sarcasm went sailing high over poor Jerry’s head.
This was Willard’s first big break, and it introduced the good-natured obliviousness that would become his calling card. “Fernwood” was renamed “America 2-Night” and relocated to California for another season.
‘Saturday Night Live’
In 1978, Willard hosted “Saturday Night Live,” bringing with him a surprisingly good Elvis Presley impersonation (he sang the King’s 1958 hit “One Night”). He also featured in “Scotch Boutique,” the first of the show’s “comically specific store” skits. Here, Willard played a hapless character who has opened a store that sells nothing but Scotch tape — in every size and variety, but still, only Scotch tape.
The sketch took aim at the retail hyper-specialization that has since given us artisanal mayonnaise stores and meatball eateries. But it also had a melancholy sweetness. Willard’s upbeat character continued to believe that one day there would be a run on his sticky wares, even if only by people needing to post their own going-out-of-business signs.
In the 1979 CBS mini-series adaptation of “Salem’s Lot,” the horror novel by Stephen King, Willard had one of his rare serious roles. His character, the smarmy real-estate agent Larry Crockett, unwittingly enabled an ancient bloodsucker to move into town. Preoccupied by his extramarital affair with his secretary, however, he remained unaware of the monster he was unleashing until it was too late.
There is a significant difference between the American and European cuts — in the latter, Willard gets a slightly steamier sex scene and a more unnerving comeuppance. That scene of course plays as terror, not comedy, and it suggests what might have been had Willard chosen more dramatic roles.
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For two seasons in the late 1980s, Willard served drinks to a group of political puppets — real ones, created by the veteran puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft. These satirically grotesque, life-size effigies of political and pop-culture figures (Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Oprah Winfrey,) lived in an alternate reality in which they would congregate to knock back a few drinks at a “Cheers”-like bar near the White House. Willard’s gentle style made the fantasy interactions feel almost plausible; it was like celebrity hobnobbing at a never-ending White House Correspondents Dinner.
‘Rosanne’ (Seasons 8-9)
In 1995, Willard reunited with Mull during Season 8 of “Roseanne,” in which they played one of the first openly gay couples on network television. Over the course of eight episodes from 1995-1997, Scott (Willard) and Leon (Mull) became ever more prominent on the series, and they continued to interact with the main characters even after their wedding in the “December Bride” episode. (Unlike, say, Carol and Susan on “Friends,” who started to disappear after their nuptials, which aired five weeks after Scott and Leon’s.)
These characters helped dispel stereotypes while also showcasing a supportive, aspirational gay relationship. (“I love you in a way that is mystical, eternal and illegal in 20 states,” the sweet Scott says to Mull’s nervous Leon). At one point, Roseanne Barr hoped to spin off Leon and Scott into their own series — to depict them raising a daughter together — but ABC rejected the idea.
‘Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy’
Playing the station director Ed Harken, Willard perfectly captured the social confusion of a ’70s man caught between the misogynistic old world of the boys’ club news team (exemplified by Will Ferrell’s anchorman, Ron Burgundy) and the more diverse new world symbolized by the team’s new hire, the reporter Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate).
As if running the station weren’t enough, Ed also had his hands full with his wayward son, Chris. (“Put down the gun and let the marching band go,” he says on one call.) Willard doesn’t clock a lot of screen time in this film filled with top comics, but he makes his every silly moment count.
Willard became the first human being to appear in a Pixar animated film, playing Shelby Forthright, the world-bestriding chief executive of Buy n Large, the corporation that ran almost everything in the 22nd Century. WALL-E (the Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class robot) and the movie’s other characters live in a future some 700 years later; they see him only in archival videos that position him as both savior and destroyer of the Earth.
Willard’s “aw shucks” performance kept Forthright from being a standard evil corporate overlord. He’s just a man who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders, and when it got to be too heavy, he dropped it.
‘The Bachelor’ (Seasons 22-24), ‘The Bachelorette’ (Seasons 14-15)
Who better to provide running commentary on the phony shenanigans of matchmaking reality shows than the goofy commentator from “Best in Show”? Willard first appeared on “The Bachelor” in 2017 to assist the host, Chris Harrison, during an absurd dog-training talent show, and then began making regular appearances to judge contestants and supply non sequiturs during ridiculous group-date competitions like dodge-ball, roller derby and pillow fights.
It was the best kind of off-color Willard commentary — earnest, random and often revealing. Because of his delivery style, Willard got away with making references to a contestant’s “courting these girls doggy-style” or to his youthful visit to a nudist colony volleyball game: “When the whistle blew and the balls started flying, it was pure joy.”
“The Bachelor” franchise might be a huge hit on its own, but like most things, it was more entertaining when Willard was involved.