'Space Force' Co-Creator Greg Daniels Shares Heartwarming Story From Set With Fred Willard

Daniels says the late actor received a standing ovation on set after improvising a five-minute story while shooting.

As Hollywood mourns the death of Fred Willard, those who worked closely with the comedic actor are remembering him through stories of his impeccable comedic timing, his iconic improvisational skills and for just plain being a hilarious guy.  

The forthcoming Netflix series Space Force marks Willard's first posthumous role (he died Friday at age 86). In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Space Force co-creator Greg Daniels shared a heartwarming story about working with the late actor, revealing that Willard's performance in the series is one of the highlights of the new comedy. 

"We were all really very sad to hear that he had passed away on Friday," said Daniels, who co-created the series with star Steve Carell. "He was a comedy legend. His work made everyone respect him, and he was a very lovable guy. Steve had worked with him on Anchorman and knew him really well."

Willard portrays the father of Carell's General Mark Naird in Space Force. Daniels revealed that one of the funniest moments in episode one came about thanks to the late actor's "legendary" improv skills. 

"I had the wonderful experience of being on the set when he did his first work for us in the first episode, and we had written something very funny for him, I thought, and he did it brilliantly," said Daniels. "And then, he's a legendary improviser so at the end of it, we said, 'Why don't you just do whatever you want?' And he went into this five-minute, incredibly funny story about crawling under the house, which you know we used completely as-is in the show."

What happened next took Daniels by surprise. 

"When he was done, the crew gave him a standing ovation, which I've never seen that happen before, but everybody knew how special the work was that he was doing," Daniels said. "And he was 86 years old, so people were just so impressed. So if there's any consolation, I guess it was that his work was the highlight of the show."

Space Force reunites Carell with The Office creator Daniels. The satirical series — which also stars Lisa Kudrow, John Malkovich, Ben Schwartz, Jimmy O. Yang, Tawny Newsome and Diana Silvers, among others — follows Carell's General Naird as he's tapped by the White House to lead a new branch of the Armed Forces and tasked with putting American "boots on the moon" by 2024. 

Willard was known for playing clueless characters to perfection in Fernwood 2 Night and Everybody Loves Raymond. He received three Emmy nominations 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.

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Season one of Space Force premieres May 29 on Netflix.