Fred Willard: “He excelled at playing loudmouths who left audiences howling.”

From the Washington Post and New York Times obits on comic actor Fred Willard:

From Harrison Smith’s obit in the Washington Post:

Fred Willard, a comic actor known for his scene-stealing, heavily improvised work with filmmaker Christopher Guest and his Emmy-nominated appearances on the sitcoms “Modern Family” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” died May 15 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86. . . .

Mr. Willard was a master at playing ridiculous, slightly smarmy characters prone to rambling monologues. While other performers made a name for themselves as leading men or character actors, he excelled at playing loudmouths — sometimes for just a few minutes in a single scene — who left audiences howling and cast members breaking character.

“Everyone has a little trapdoor in their mind where you go to say something and then you think no, you shouldn’t say this,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2001. “I just open that door.”

Mr. Willard worked frequently with Guest, who starred in “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984), a parody of rock documentaries, and who later assembled a loose repertory group that included Mr. Willard, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey.

Together, they helped popularize the “mockumentary” genre, examining — and skewering — small-town theater productions in “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), dog shows in “Best in Show” (2000), folk music in “A Mighty Wind” (2003) and the Hollywood awards season in “For Your Consideration” (2006). . . .

Mr. Willard’s crowning achievement was arguably “Best in Show,” as the dog-show announcer Buck Laughlin, who muses about miniature schnauzers: “You’d think they’d want to breed ’em bigger, wouldn’t you? Like grapefruits or watermelons.” Marveling at a judge examining the gait of a beagle, he declares: “Good way to judge a woman, have her run away from you and then run back.”. . .

Mr. Willard appeared in more than 300 movies and television series, and was a fixture of late-night talk shows hosted by Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. He was initially known for playing a talk-show host character, Jerry Hubbard — the dimwitted sidekick to Martin Mull’s host Barth Gimble — on “Fernwood 2 Night,” a satirical series that premiered in 1977 and became known as “America 2-Night” during its second season. . . .

In 2012, he made headlines after being arrested for lewd conduct at an adult movie theater in Hollywood. He denied doing anything wrong and avoided a trial after completing a diversion program for minor sexual offenses. Joking with late-night host Jimmy Fallon after his arrest, he said, “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?’ ”
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From the Times obit by Anita Gates:

Mr. Willard made an art of playing characters who, as The New Yorker once noted, are “gloriously out of their depth.”

There was Buck Laughlin, the dog-show announcer in Mr. Guest’s “Best in Show” (2000), who wondered why breeders didn’t want miniature schnauzers to be larger, believed that Christopher Columbus had captained the Mayflower and thought the perfect lighthearted comment to make as the terriers made their entrance was, “To think that in some countries these dogs are eaten.”

There was Ron Albertson, a travel agent trying his hand at community theater, in “Waiting for Guffman” (1996). When Ron wants a doctor acquaintance’s medical opinion, he begins to unzip his pants in the middle of dinner at a Chinese restaurant. And there was Mike LaFontaine, a laughably crude show business manager, in “A Mighty Wind” “ (2003).

In “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004), Mr. Willard was the news-station producer who horrified Ron (Will Ferrell) by promoting a woman to co-anchor. The producer had problems of his own: His son was the kind of teenager who might have a bad day and take a marching band hostage.

Mr. Willard’s characters were a bit more nuanced in his later, and most acclaimed, television roles. He was Brad Garrett’s religious-nut father-in-law on several episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” bringing him Emmy Award nominations three years in a row (2003-5). Over the 11 seasons of “Modern Family,” he played Ty Burrell’s father, leading to a fourth Emmy nomination, in 2010. The character died of old age in the show’s final season, which ended last month. . . .

“I always wanted to be a baseball player,” Mr. Willard once told an interviewer. But he was also an avid radio fan and thought that show business might be an interesting — and easy — career.

He studied at the Showcase Theater in Manhattan and spent a year working in Chicago with the Second City, the comedy improvisation troupe. He and a comedy partner, Vic Grecco, began performing in coffee houses and worked their way up to appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”. . .

He made his television debut on “Pistols ’n’ Petticoats” (1966) a short-lived western sitcom starring Ann Sheridan. His first film was “Teenage Mother” (1967), an exploitation film so misguided that he once saw a theater audience boo his character’s attempt to stop a rape. . . .

By 1969, Mr. Willard was appearing in the prestigious Off Broadway production of Jules Pfeiffer’s “Little Murders.” But it was not until 1977, when he was cast in “Fernwood 2 Night,” Norman Lear’s high-satire spinoff of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” that he grabbed the spotlight. His character, Jerry Hubbard, was the bright-eyed, restlessly eager announcer-sidekick of Barth Gimble (Martin Mull), the host of a small-town TV talk show.

Over the years Mr. Willard became a favorite among real-life talk-show hosts, making at least 50 guest appearances in sketches on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” He also did nine on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” including one appearance as Fred Trump visiting from hell to discuss his son Donald.

 

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