Fred Willard, Master of Comic Cluelessness, Dies at 86

Fred Willard

The actor was great at improvisation and brilliantly amusing on 'Fernwood 2 Night,' 'Everybody Loves Raymond' and in Christopher Guest mockumentaries.

Fred Willard, the clever comic actor who played clueless characters to perfection on Fernwood 2 NightEverybody Loves Raymond and as a member of a great ensemble in several Christopher Guest mockumentaries, has died. He was 86.

Willard died Friday night in Los Angeles of natural causes, his agent Michael Eisenstadt told The Hollywood Reporter.

His daughter, Hope, said he passed "very peacefully … He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever." 

Always amusing, Willard also elicited grins as station director Ed Harken in the two Anchorman films and as the voice of Shelby Forthright, the lone human in WALL-E (2008). He can be seen this month in a recurring role as Steve Carell’s dad on the Netflix series Space Force.

Willard received Emmy nominations in three consecutive years for portraying Hank MacDougall, the conservative father-in-law of Brad Garrett's Robert, on Everybody Loves Raymond, and more recently, he nabbed another one for playing Frank Dunphy, father of Ty Burrell's Phil, on Modern Family.

Willard was one of those actors who made you smile at first sight, and even his characters' names sounded funny: Mr. Stuffleby (from Wizards of Waverly Place), presidential assistant Feebleman (Buck Henry's First Family), Basil St. Mosely (The Wedding Planner), Mayor Deebs (Roxanne), Vincent Vanderhoff (Americathon), Vice Principal Mallet (Family Matters) and Sigvard Thorsten (Easy to Assemble).

Like Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, Willard collaborated often with writer-director Guest on his comedies, which relied heavily on improvisation. His mind seemed to go a mile a minute.

"How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard's gifts," actress Jamie Lee Curtis, Guest's wife, wrote on Twitter.

He played an Air Force colonel in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), then was travel agent/amateur actor Ron Albertson in Waiting for Guffman (1996); dunderheaded announcer Buck Laughlin in Best in Show (2000); Mike LaFontaine, blond-haired manager of the New Main Street Singers, in A Mighty Wind (2003); and smarmy newsmagazine host Chuck Porter (supposedly modeled on Billy Bush) in For Your Consideration (2006). 

Willard also appeared on the Guest TV shows Family Tree at HBO and Mascots at Netflix.

Years earlier, he worked with a bunch of puppets, playing a bartender (again as the only human) on the Sid & Marty Krofft syndicated series D.C. Follies.

In 1977, the good-natured Willard had a career breakthrough when he was cast on the late-night syndicated comedy Fernwood 2 Night, playing dimwitted talk show co-host and sidekick Jerry Hubbard opposite Martin Mull as Barth Gimble, late of Miami Beach.

The five-nights-a-week series, a spinoff of/summer-replacement series for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, was produced by Norman Lear and Alan Thicke. His Jerry got the gig on the small-market show because he was the brother-in-law of the owner of the Ohio cable-TV station. The music was provided by the band Happy Kyne and His Mirth Makers (fronted by the dour Frank De Vol).

The next summer, the show was rebranded America 2-Night and the setting switched to the fictional Northern California town of Alta Coma, which Jerry called "the unfinished furniture capital of the world" in his nightly introduction. 

Willard said he had been up for a part in a series that was a parody of Star Wars and Star Trek and wanted that job. However, he "went in and we did a few run-throughs and I found Martin to be so funny and I had so much fun that after a few days I said, 'You know, I'm kind of enjoying this,'" he said in Robert Pegg's 2002 book, Comical Co-Stars of Television: From Ed Norton to Kramer.

Carol Burnett, Tom Waits, Burt Lancaster and other stars would come on America 2-Night as they were "passing through" Alta Coma while on vacation.

Willard teamed again with Mull in the 1988 film Portrait of a White Marriage and on the TV mockumentaries The History of White People in America and Lots of Luck, and they played a gay couple on Roseanne (in 1995, they had one of television's first gay weddings).

An only child, Frederick Charles Willard was born in Cleveland. His father died when he was about 12, and "that was quite tough," he said. 

As a youngster raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, he was the class clown and dreamed of playing big-league baseball or working as a deejay. Midway through high school, his mother sent him to a military school outside Louisville; Willard then graduated from Virginia Military Institute and served in the U.S. Army for two years in Germany. 

Afterward, he moved to New York, studied acting at the Showcase Theatre (in reality, it was an apartment in midtown) and formed a sketch comedy act with a fellow student, Vic Greco. They played clubs around the U.S. and made it to The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 and The Steve Allen Show.

After splitting with Greco in the late 1960s — they were offered a job as regulars on The Carol Burnett Show, but Greco didn't want to do it — Willard joined Second City in Chicago, working for a year alongside the likes of David Steinberg and Robert Klein as he honed his improvisational skills. 

He acted for director Alan Arkin in an off-Broadway production of Little Murders, then was a founding member of another improv group, Ace Trucking Company, which opened for Tom Jones in Las Vegas and did jokes on the singer's ABC variety show shot in London. (The troupe's other original members were George Memmoli, Michael Mislove, Bill "You Can Call Me Ray" Saluga and Patti Deutsch.)

Willard made his onscreen acting debut on a 1966 episode of the Western comedy Pistols 'n' Petticoats, appeared on Get Smart and other shows and played bumbling District Attorney Bud Nugent on the short-lived NBC sitcom Sirota's Court, starring Michael Constantine.

Willard also was one of the hosts on the 1980s NBC reality show Real People, executive produced by George Schlatter; hosted a 1978 installment of Saturday Night Live (he and Gilda Radner worked in a store that sold only Scotch tape); and was a regular on other series like Maybe It's Me starring Reagan Dale Neis, Norm MacDonald's A Minute With Stan Hooper and Back to You, starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton.

His film résumé also included Teenage Mother (1967), Jenny (1970), Silver Streak (1976), Fun With Dick and Jane (1977), How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980), Permanent Midnight (1998), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Monster House (2004), Epic Movie (2007), Max Rose (2013) and Fifty Shades of Black (2016).

Willard was rarely idle, sporting more than 300 "actor" credits and 186 "self" credits on IMDb (he was on Jay Leno's Tonight Show more than 100 times and more recently a frequent visitor to Jimmy Kimmel Live!). And when he wasn't working, he and his wife, Mary, ran an L.A. sketch-writing workshop known as the MoHo Group starting in 2006. 

"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. You know how you go to a theater and after 10 minutes you say, 'Oh, I don't like this thing,' but you don't want to get up and leave? At a sketch show, it's always something new every few minutes."

His wife, whom he married in 1968, died in July 2018.

In 2012, Willard was arrested for allegedly masturbating inside the Tiki Theater Xymposium, an adult movie house on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Willard insisted he did nothing wrong and no charges were filed, but before things were resolved, PBS had fired him from the show Market Warriors.

A week after the incident, Willard joked about it as a guest on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. "Let me say this: It's the last time I'm going to listen to my wife when she says, 'Why don't you go out and see a movie?'" he said.

Fallon asked Willard if the film he was there to see was The Firm (no), Free Willy (no) or Anaconda (no). "Sadly," he said, "it was Get Shorty."