Fred Willard gets a hero’s salute from Jimmy Kimmel and famous admirers

Jimmy Kimmel, right, paid tribute to late comedy star Fred Willard on Monday's "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
(ABC / YouTube)

Several of Fred Willard’s Hollywood friends and collaborators came together on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on Monday night to honor the comedy star, who died at age 86 on Friday in Los Angeles.

Kimmel, who dedicated the episode to Willard, began his tribute to the beloved actor in a touching monologue recalling his childhood days watching Willard as the “oblivious second banana,” Jerry Hubbard, to Martin Mull’s Barth Gimble on “Fernwood 2 Night.”

“He played basically the same character in everything. He was the same guy because it always worked, so why would you change it?” Kimmel said. “Didn’t matter if the movie or show was good, bad, terrible or great — Fred was always funny. And he was more than just funny. He had a light inside of him. You could see a glint of it in his eyes, and it made everyone around him happy.”

Among the others who saluted Willard from their homes were actors Mull, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen and Ray Romano, as well as director Christopher Guest and producer Norman Lear.


O’Hara was up first, reminiscing about her time improvising with Willard as husband and wife in Guest’s 1996 film, “Waiting for Guffman.”

“Fred was so wildly, inventively funny, but also so unbelievably strong in the best way,” O’Hara said. “I had no choice but to let go and surrender to Fred’s will, to the point of him letting him talk me into wearing those sad, unattractive track suits in our audition scene … I couldn’t say no. Thank you, Fred. God bless you.”

Another of O’Hara’s onscreen husbands, “Schitt’s Creek” star Levy, fondly remembered Willard’s hilarious turn as a color commentator in their 2000 Guest comedy, “Best in Show.”

“The entire act, you knew, was going to be funny, and that’s what Fred did with every project he was in,” Levy said. “He was a true improvisational genius and the nicest man you could ever want to meet.”

Burrell and Bowen, who played Willard’s son, Phil Dunphy, and daughter-in-law, Claire Dunphy, on “Modern Family,” offered a glimpse into Willard’s upbeat spirit, both onscreen and off.

Comedians from Jimmy Kimmel to Ellen DeGeneres paid tribute to Fred Willard, who died Friday night.

“The truth is that I was so heavily influenced by Fred’s style as a performer and his good-natured obliviousness that there would be no Phil Dunphy without Fred Willard,” a tearful Burrell said. “The beautiful irony of him being cast as Phil’s dad was almost too much for me to bear. ... I tried very poorly to tell him how much he meant to me and how much he had influenced my career. And he just smiled and said, ‘I’ll see you on the next one.’”

Willard’s former “Everybody Loves Raymond” costar Romano regarded the actor as a “genius,” as did his “Fernwood 2 Night” collaborators Mull and Lear.

“Fred Willard leaves a hole that will not be filled by anybody,” Mull said. “There was no one who could take my breath away with such outrageous and fearless leaps of originality. One of a kind.”

Fred Willard, an improv comedy master known for playing a goofball so straight it wasn’t always clear he was in on the joke, has died, his agent said.

“I never enjoyed anyone more in a lifetime in our business ... than I enjoyed Fred Willard,” Lear said. “I loved him as a man. I adored him as a character — as unique and hilarious a character as anyone I ever worked with ... I’ll miss you, Fred. But you’re with me. I see you, I laugh at you as I think about you.”

And of course, Guest also had several glowing words about his longtime muse, who appeared in a slew of the filmmaker’s projects, including “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind,” “Mascots,” “For Your Consideration” and “This Is Spinal Tap.”

“In one of the first scenes I directed with Fred Willard, the film ran out, and I said, ‘Cut,’ and Fred said, ‘I’m not finished.’ And he wasn’t finished,” Guest recalled. “I think he could have gone on basically forever. He had an astounding gift — a rare talent that people on the set would watch in wonderment. I’m so grateful to have worked with him on so many films over the years, and I will miss him terribly.”