A master of improvisation, Fred Willard leaves a legacy of memorable performances
On Friday comedic actor Fred Willard died at the age of 86.
With a career in television and movies that spanned six decades—from the 1960s comedy scene where he developed a close friendship with Jerry Stiller to his most recent work on the forthcoming Netflix series Space Force—Willard is probably best known for improvisational work in the mockumentary films of Christopher Guest. While he almost always played an unflappable buffoon, his buoyant charm and genius for ad-libbed absurdity made him a perennial joy to watch in both his major film roles and his frequent guest appearances on shows like The Simpsons, Community, and Drunk History. Here's a look back at some of his most iconic roles.
Wall-E: Shelby Forthright
While Willard's role as Shelby Forthright, global CEO of the Buy n Large corporation, was a small part of 2008's Wall-E—with a voiceover explaining Operation Cleanup, followed by a top secret video acknowledging its failure—the movie's plot hinges on his cheerful, all-consuming corporatism. It's also notable that Willard's marks the only live-action performance in a Pixar film, adding to the surreal quality of the future depicted in Wall-E.
Mascots: Greg Gammons Jr.
In 2016's Mascots, the latest of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, Fred Willard plays Greg Gammons Jr., who manages one of the acts competing for the World Mascot Association's Gold Fluffy Award. Almost always inappropriate and absurd in his performances, Willard may have topped himself in this role, playing Gammons Jr. so completely tactless and stupid that his scenes would be unwatchable if not for Willard's irresistible charm.
A Mighty Wind: Mike LaFontaine
As with all of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, 2003's A Mighty Wind explores a niche community populated by over-the-top characters. In this case, the niche community is Folk Music, and Fred Willard plays washed-up actor Mike LaFontaine who manages The New Main Street Singers and is constantly trying to incorporate comedic gags and catchphrases into their act.
A History of White People in America: Hal Harrison
In 1985 Cinemax began airing this mockumentary series that skewered the trend of documentaries that treated American minority groups with a tone of anthropological disinterest. The series follows the Harrison family, including Willard as the perpetually befuddled patriarch, Hal. The show's dry humor and satirical bent make for entertaining watching to this day.
For Your Consideration: Chuck Porter
Another of Christopher Guest's films, For Your Consideration goes behind the scenes of a Hollywood movie that is suddenly getting a lot of (unwarranted) buzz. The cast of has-been actors and the eccentric director become convinced that the movie is going to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and the Hollywood media, including Fred Willard as Chuck Porter, encourage that delusion. A celebrity gossip reporter, Willard delivers his unhinged and oblivious commentary with characteristic enthusiasm.
Modern Family: Frank Dunphy
In some of the best casting in TV history, Fred Willard was brought in to play Phil Dunphy's father Frank in the first season of Modern Family, and he continued to make guest appearances throughout the show's 11 season run. Willard's Frank Dunphy pairs perfectly with Ty Burrell as Phil, and the two play off of each other's goofy energy to great effect.
Waiting for Guffman: Ron Albertson
1996's Waiting for Guffman was Christopher Guest's first mockumentary about small-town theater production that goes off the rails after the performers become convinced that their bizarre musical has a shot at becoming a Broadway show. Willard plays the part of Ron Albertson who owns a travel agency with his wife Sheila (Catherine O'Hara). The pair's lack of social boundaries, along with Sheila's alcoholism and Ron's absurd ego produce some of the film's funnies scenes.
Anchorman: Ed Harken
In 2004's Anchorman, Willard plays station director Ed Harken, who is constantly on the phone ineptly dealing with his son's increasingly disturbing behavior. The one-sided conversations allow for the absurdity to develop line by line, making for some of the movies best laughs.
Best in Show: Buck Laughlin
2000s Best in Show, the mockumentary following the fictional Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, is possibly Christopher Guest's best film, and Fred Willard's performance as color commentator Buck Laughlin is one of the film's best recurring gags. While dog expert Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock) tries to stay on track and provide cogent information on the dogs and their handlers, Willard improvises all manner of ridiculous questions to derail and annoy him in consistently hilarious exchanges.
Space Force: Fred Naird/Captain Thomas Woods
The forthcoming Netflix comedy series Space Force, from Office co-creator Greg Daniels, is set to premiere later this month and stars Steve Carrell as General Mark R. Naird, who is being put in charge of the newest military branch, Space Force. Fred Willard plays Carrell's father, Secretary of Defense Fred Naird. While it remains to be seen if Willard's role on 2020's Space Force will be as memorable as some of his other characters, in a strange twist it turns out that Willard already starred in a show called Space Force back in 1978. A parody of Star Trek, Space Force was never picked up past its pilot episode, but you can see the entirety of its cheesy 70s comedy on YouTube now, with Fred Willard as Captain Thomas Woods.
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