Few losses have hit The A.V Club as hard as the news of Fred Willard’s death at 86. The performer has been a constant presence in comedy for fifty-plus years, from the early talk-show spoof Fernwood Tonight in the ’70s, to becoming a mainstay in the Christopher Guest stable, to various sitcom guest appearances in shows like New Girl, Undeclared, and Modern Family, as well as animated series like King Of The Hill and The Loud House—one of those actors you were always happy to see wherever and whenever he appeared. It’s difficult to narrow down from such an exemplary—and hilarious—career, but below are our favorite picks from Willard’s multitude of performances. Please add your own in the comments.
The impulse, when considering a favorite part from Fred Willard’s 300-plus catalog of amazing comedic roles, is to overthink. But such would be a disservice to Best In Show’s Buck Laughlin, a man who never had a thought he didn’t immediately broadcast to the whole wide world. Utterly unphased by worries, good taste, or his complete lack of knowledge about the field of canine competition, Buck is the perfect foil to commentating partner Jim Piddock’s politely restrained dog expert—and the perfect vehicle for Willard’s irrepressible energy, which sees him riff endlessly, in a way that somehow only becomes more funny the less his jokes and asides make even the barest modicum of sense.
My husband quotes A Mighty Wind’s Mike LaFontaine at least once a week, and I so distinctly remember watching Willard’s Scott wed Martin Mull’s Leon on a 1995 episode of Roseanne, but Willard’s role on Modern Family may end up being the one that I remember most fondly. Willard made his first appearance as Frank, the goofy dad of Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), in season one of the ABC comedy, and continued to pop in over the past decade before his character was killed off in an emotional episode this January. In a way, that episode was a primer for saying goodbye to Willard. In “Legacy,” Phil struggles to honor his dad, a man with a seemingly infinite supply of love to give who always knew how to make people laugh and not take things too seriously. But I know how I’ll be honoring Willard: by living life like Frank—and Willard, really.
My first memory of Fred Willard was from Fernwood 2 Night, as the frequently befuddled sidekick to Martin Mull’s scathingly sarcastic host. (I didn’t know that they got married on Roseanne, Patrick, but that is just perfect). So I was happy to see his familiar face show up in the mockumentaries that followed, starting with the military base colonel in This Is Spinal Tap, moving on to a plethora of wonderful performances in Christopher Guest’s films. I have to go with my favorite here, Waiting For Guffman, starring Willard and Catherine O’Hara as Ron and Sheila Albertson, the “Lunts of Blaine” who lord over the local theater scene. It’s not his most kind-hearted role, as Ron is in fact a bit arrogant, but it is unfailingly hilarious, whether he’s tossing off his own dialogue during a performance (“If there’s an empty space, just fill it with a line, that’s what I like to do. Even if it’s from another show”), hurling a multitude of dental jokes at Eugene Levy’s Dr. Allan Pearl, or inserting theater lingo whenever he can (“You mean, strike it?”). The highlight for me is Ron and Sheila’s audition scene, a dramatized version of the 1970s hit “Midnight At The Oasis.” I don’t know if it’s the exaggerated warmups or the matching track suits, but Willard’s delivery of “I don’t need a harem, honey,” never fails to send me.
A Fred Willard character is the last person who needs encouragement to liven up their act; fortunately, that’s exactly what happens when Willard shows up as a history professor in the second episode of Undeclared. Midway through “Oh, So You Have A Boyfriend?”—and its alternate, “Cat Scratch Fever”-suffering cut, “Full Bluntal Nugety”—Willard goes on a tear rivaling that of Buck Laughlin’s inane dog show commentary or A Mighty Wind’s whirlwind introduction to Mike LaFontaine, a cavalcade of bad impressions and bargain-bin disguises that must’ve been an absolute riot to witness on set. (You can occasionally catch some of the students breaking; the pure comic fury of the thing is encapsulated by the tie that disappears between close-ups and medium shots of his Lee Harvey Oswald costume.) It’s the blithe mayhem of the Fred Willard experience in one concentrated dose, stitched together in a way that underlines touches like that “Really makes ya think, huh?” look he gives when Professor Duggan’s Cold War lecture/reenactment steers into conspiracy territory. Like a lot of the actor’s guest shots, he makes a profoundly funny impact in a short span of time, and from the first time I saw it, I’ve rarely shown up anywhere in a new outfit without first saying, “Who’s that new prof in the fancy duds—is it Ricky Martin?”
Fred Willard deserves more credit for embracing the weird, often profane visions of the younger generation of comedians. Sure, he popped into Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave last year, but the last decade’s seen him also bend his talents to the singular aesthetics of Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Birthday Boys, Andy Daley’s Review, and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. I’ve always been partial to Awesome Show!’s Tragg, who can turn any meal into slop using his own Original Brown Slop Powder Mix. He’s still the warm, amiable wisecracker—his advice for “those of you who like to travel by ship” is pure Willard—but he’s still a natural fit in Tim and Eric’s twisted world, a testament to his openness and malleability.
There was a comforting element to Fred Willard’s voice that made him such a welcomed addition to any animated series. For a long while, Nickelodeon’s The Loud House was a staple in our home, and it was always a joy to see Pop-Pop occasionally stop by to spend time with his gaggle of grandchildren. It was a familiar bright spot for the adults in the room who had grown accustomed to seeing (and hearing) Willard step in as a reliable source of lighthearted fun throughout the decades. There are certain voice actors who are tapped for their ability to change their vocals to fit the characters. Willard, however, was the legend you hired because his voice, distinct and organic, stood for humor, kindness, and a homespun candor that made a comedic giant seem so down to earth. Whether it was Milo Murphy’s Law, The Simpsons, or even his controversial, wildly hilarious turn as Mr. Joe Petto on The Boondocks, his voice warmed hearts and prepared the audience for much-needed guffaws from the first word. It’s a little weird to say that the world will sound a little less funny starting today, but it will. [Shannon Miller]
For more Fred Willard, check out our 2012 interview with the actor, in which he looks back at some of his most memorable roles: