Monday, May 18, 2020

R.I.P.: Fred Willard, Comic Actor

Fred Willard 1933 - 2020
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, reports the L-A Times.

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.”

Tributes to Willard poured out across social media on Saturday from fans and collaborators in Hollywood, including 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 in 2018.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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