Fred Willard —the improv comedy master whose star shone brightest in the satire of writer-director Christopher Guest, playing a goofball so straight it wasn’t always clear he was in on the joke — died Friday evening in Los Angeles of natural causes, his agent Mike Eisenstadt said. The actor was 86.
His daughter, Hope Willard, said on Twitter that the comedian died “peacefully,” adding, “He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end.”
In “Waiting for Guffman,” the 1996 film that launched him into the mainstream, Willard was a small-town amateur actor opposite Catherine O’Hara. With utter sincerity, the duo auditioned in matching tracksuits with a Taster’s Choice commercial performed to the 1973 hit song “Midnight at the Oasis.” It killed.
The film became an instant comedy classic and earned Willard an American Comedy Award nomination and a Screen Actors Guild award nomination.
“Fred has the patent on characters who are comfortable in their stupidity,” Guest once noted.
Tributes to Willard poured out across social media on Saturday from fans and collaborators in Hollywood, including Guest’s wife, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who wrote, “How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard’s gifts. He is with his missed Mary now.” Willard’s wife of 50 years Mary died in 2018.
Willard had most recently been seen in a series of recurring comedic sketches on the late-night show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” work that leveraged his goofy, amiable Everyman charm and helped lift his spirits in the wake of his wife’s death.
“I didn’t see it as helping him out as much as it was just that he’s one of the funniest people in the world,” Kimmel told The Times a year ago. “He’s got that twinkle in his eye, and people love him right off the bat. He’s this unique combination of approachable Midwestern guy and someone weird. Behind that very friendly face, there’s a slightly off-kilter brain.”
Born in 1933, Willard cultivated his wisecracking straight man persona as the son of a stern father who worked in a bank. He was raised middle class in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and fell in love with sketch comedy after seeing the 1950s vaudeville silliness of bandleader Spike Jones and the City Slickers.
Though Willard spent his formative years in military school, earning a graduate degree in English from Virginia Military Institute, his heart was always in show business.
After he spent his stint in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany, he moved to New York in the early 1960s to train as an actor. In no time, he and a classmate were appearing as a comedy duo on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Around 1965, Willard moved to Chicago to spend a year training with the groundbreaking improv group “The Second City.” Then he returned to New York and co-founded his own troupe, the Ace Trucking Co., which spent years performing on high-profile TV variety shows, opening for Tom Jones in Las Vegas and eventually releasing a comedy album.
Along the way, Willard co-starred in an off-Broadway black comedy with a 20-year-old Guest, a connection that would later change the course of his career.
“I knew something was off when Fred started doing lines that weren’t actually in the play to me,” Guest said in a TV interview in 2007. “I didn’t know what to make of it. I said to myself, ‘You’re different.’”
By 1977, Willard was appearing with Martin Mull as host of a short-lived parody talk show, “Fernwood 2 Night,” created by Norman Lear. That led to another brief hosting gig for the NBC reality series “Real People.”
But it was Willard’s mastery of the mockumentary, starting with the 1984 film “This Is Spinal Tap,” that first earned him widespread notice. In that film, he played an Air Force officer trying to prove his hipster cred with a series of cringe-worthy jokes. And though it was years before the film reached cult status, Willard had discovered his place.
He spent the 1980s and ’90s bouncing around TV with a few notable recurring parts, including as Mull’s gay partner in “Roseanne.” That same year, he appeared in the Oscar-winning comedic short film “Ray’s Male Heterosexual Dance Hall.”
In Guest’s 2000 comedy “Best in Show,” Willard earned enduring success as an over-the-top dog show host. Willard’s bone-headed — and improvised — interstitial remarks to his prim, British co-host became one of the highlights of the film. He won an American Comedy Award for the performance.
After that, Willard appeared in higher-profile films, including the 2004 Will Ferrell comedy “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and its 2013 sequel. He also played the CEO of the Buy ‘n’ Large Corp. in the 2008 Oscar winning animated film “WALL-E.”
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He spent three seasons on the hit CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” as the conservative middle-school vice principal Hank MacDougall, earning three Emmy Award nominations for the role. And in 2009, Willard became an occasional guest star on the ABC series “Modern Family,” playing Ty Burrell’s father Frank and earning an Emmy nomination in 2010 for the role.
Willard would go on to appear in three more of Guest’s mockumentaries, “A Mighty Wind” in 2003, “For Your Consideration” in 2006 and the Netflix film “Mascots” in 2016.
In 2012, he was arrested for suspicion of engaging in lewd act at an adult theater in Hollywood. But rather than hide behind a publicist, Willard tweeted a review of the X-rated film he was caught watching: “Lousy film, but theater would make a terrific racquetball court.” Then he went on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and cracked jokes about it. He was later exonerated of any wrongdoing.
In 2016, he formed a sketch group in a little theater in North Hollywood called the MoHos that performs regularly around Los Angeles.
“That’s always been my favorite thing: sketches,” he told L.A. Weekly in 2016. “Because if the audience doesn’t like something, it’s over in four or five minutes and you go on to something new.”
Willard will be seen later this month in a recurring role in the Steve Carell Netflix series “Space Force,” in which he’ll play the father of Carell’s character. On Saturday, Carell wrote on Twitter that Willard was “the funniest person that I’ve ever worked with.”