Comedy Legend Fred Willard Dies Peacefully of Natural Causes at 86
Legendary comedic genius Fred Willard of Modern Family, Best In Show, Waiting for Guffman, Fernwood 2 Night, Everybody Loves Raymond, Anchorman, Roseanne, and co-star with Steve Carell in Space Force dies peacefully of natural causes at the age of 86
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ABTV Remembers Fred Willard
Comedy legend Fred Willard died Friday of natural causes at the age of 86.
When Fred Willard started performing at the Second City Improv Theater in Chicago in 1965, no one knew what to make of him. The still-in-its-infancy improv scene was a burgeoning bohemian quadrant of showbiz that drew its share of odd ducks, misfits, and borderline personalities, but Fred Willard was no beatnik, no yippie, no hippie, at least not as far as anyone could tell. There was something about his unwavering, straight shooter, can-do (almost generic) all-American affect that made people always wonder if he was putting them on.
When his fellow players would get to know him, they’d discover that all of his hearty warmth was a genuine expression of his essence, married to a subtle mischievous intelligence that was always twinkling behind the cheerfully clueless facades of the roles he played. It was the essence of his comedy.
Credit: Sony Pictures Television
He had all the virtues of a born straight man, a square-jawed clip-art kinda fella with good posture, a rock on stage against which more flamboyant improvisers could lash themselves, knowing his hidden wit would emerge in the nick of time and make elegant entertainment out of their chaos. He found a niche and he made it his playground, from the get-go.
In 1977, he would effortlessly steal the show every episode as Jerry Hubbard on mock talk show Fernwood 2 Night (and, later, America 2 Night), a low-rent Ed McMahon to Martin Mull’s Barth Gimble (a sleazy suburban Johnny Carson). It’s a cult classic at this point, hilarious on many levels, and the muted dislike the co-hosts feel for each other under their showbiz veneer often provides a masterclass in comic acting.
Credit: The Carsey-Werner Company
Willard and Mull reunited in recurring roles as a history-making sitcom gay couple who employed Roseanne Barr on Roseanne. Willard appeared memorably as teacher Karl Matushka on Sister, Sister and as the voice of travel agent Wally Kogen on The Simpsons. He dipped his toe in the mockumentay genre with The History of White People in America, and then leapt into the form as part of Christopher Guest’s impeccable ensemble in Watiing For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind. If Fernwood 2 Night is a masterclass, these brilliant films are universities into themselves, and Fred Willard was one of the deans.
Credit: Castle Rock Entertainment
His body of work is like a vast map of modern comedy, encompassing Modern Family, Tim and Eric, Family Guy, King of the Hill, Everybody Loves Raymond, Anchorman and regular, hysterical appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel Live!
He also has a recurring role in the upcoming Space Force, in which we’ll see the late Willard’s comedy magic interacting with Steve Carell’s magic (which shows Willard’s influence, with that eager-to-please performative stupidity that shades ever so slightly into madness). Carell and so many other comedic actors of the past several generations owe something (in some cases, everything) to Fred Willard’s comedic genius. He never stopped working and he never stopped loving his work.
Credit: SF Sketchfest
Condolences are already pouring forth from every sector of the Hollywood Community. He will be dearly missed by his fellow comedians, his colleagues in the industry, and we fans who have been enriched and thrilled by his talents.
Jamie Lee Curtis, whose husband CHistopher Guest directed Willard in Best In Show and other great films, said on Instagram: “A fond farewell to Mr. Fred Willard. How lucky we all are that we got to witness his great gifts. Thanks for the deep belly laughs. You are now with Mary. Home safe,”
Steve Carell tweeted: “Fred Willard was the funniest person that I’ve ever worked with. He was a sweet, wonderful man,”
Willard’s daughter Hope Mulbarger said in a statement, “My father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old. He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”
Jason M. Lucia is a media critic, columnist, and professional ghostwriter whose work has been published under several pseudonyms. He was raised in Medford, MA. He went to school in NY. He lives to rhapsodize the stories he loves on the page and in the flesh.
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