Confidently Comically Clueless: Fred Willard (1933-2020)

OK, 2020, enough already. This one really hurts. For almost a half-century, when comic actor Fred Willard came onto the screen, you knew something funny was about to go down, even if it was the briefest of cameos — like when he was a clueless colonel welcoming Spinal Tap to his military base with improvised methodical rambling including: “We are such fans of your music and all of your records. I’m not speaking of yours personally, but the whole genre of the rock and roll.” Here’s a few great moments from the life of one of the finest and funniest comic actors. We’ll set it up with his own analysis of his first IMDB credit, on the TV western Pistols ‘N Petticoats.

Teenage Mother

Even in his first movie in 1967, you can sense hints of his singular foole as a sexist coach in this minor film about a possible rape at a high school.

Fernwood

Martin Mull — another one of the versatile greats — had never met when the two first paired up in 1977 for Forever Fernwood (Later Fernwood 2 Night), but the two hit the ground running — Mull as Barth Gimble, Willard as Jerry Hubbard — on the parody talk show spinoff of the soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Here’s a good example of the two’s rapport and one of the earliest example’s of Willard’s classic character.

This Is Spinal Tap

We already talked about this almost throwaway scene of less than three minutes — but it is a key moment as it is a turn in the classic movie as we start to see the darkness awaiting the flailing British metal band as their tour takes them deeper into the American heartland, and Willard knocked it out of the park as the affably stiff military man. It was the beginning of perhaps his best continuing collaborations as he would at least appear in every one of the Christopher Guest movies.

Rest of the Best of the Guest

Let’s just mostly let his performances speak for themselves, but to set them up — in Waiting For Guffman he brimmed with unearned confidence as Ron Albertson beside Catherine O’Hara as an musical acting team. That same unearned confidence fueled perhaps his greatest performance — in Best In Show — offering absurd color commentary as Buck Laughlin at a dog show, spouting improvised ridiculous observations vexing and confusing his play-by-play man played by Jim Piddock. He amped the, you guessed it, unearned confidence, up to 11 in The Mighty Wind, as the manager of the Seekers stand-in The New Main Street Singers who pined for his days as star of a 1970 failed sitcom, constantly spouting his catch phrases, well, see below.

His Final Role

We could go for pages on all his show-stealing roles from the voice of Wally Kogen, dopey hustler in the Super Bowl episode of The Simpsons to the Emmy award winning role as the father-in-law of the Raymond everybody liked to another sitcom father-in-law, this time as Frank Dunphy (absolute perfect casting for father of Ty Burrell’s character) in Modern Family. However, let’s just end this tribute with the genesis of what would turn out to be his final role. When real-life idiot President Donald Trump announced his bizarrely unnecessary Space Force, Jimmy Kimmel of course decided to mock it (as it should be mocked) and for the face of his fictional version of the heroic legion he chose octogenarian Willard for a running skit.

The bit would inspire a show starring Steve Carrell, also called Space Force, debuting later this year, with what will be Willard’s final onscreen performance. It’s a fitting end to an understated comic genius who was also an affable fellow who was always game for anything. And we as a world of watchers were better for it.

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