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No One Had Instincts Like Fred Willard


Fred Willard brought an innate sense of commitment to his roles, and his demeanor had an innate gentleness.Photograph by Matthew Simmons / Getty

A week ago, while talking with a friend about following one’s instincts, I cited an immortal scene of Fred Willard’s, from Christopher Guest’s 1996 comedy, “Waiting for Guffman.” In it, Willard and Catherine O’Hara play Ron and Sheila Albertson, the gung-ho stars of all the amateur theatre productions in their small Missouri town—“the Lunts of Blaine,” their director calls them. (They’re also travel agents who have never travelled.) Willard, handsome and genial as ever, wears a sports coat, an ascot, a pocket square, and a relaxed smile. “We’re in a glamour profession, being travel agents,” he says, explaining why he might intimidate a fellow-actor. Sheila adds that Ron is also intimidating because he has so much experience. At home, she says, Ron gives her extensive notes, often for an hour or two at a time: “He’s trying to help me to change my instincts, or at least ignore them.” Ron, all affable pomposity, beams at the camera.

In real life, Willard, who died on Friday, at the age of eighty-six, was a master at following his instincts, and at inspiring fellow-actors to follow theirs. He was a comic’s comic, beloved onscreen and off. Throughout his six-decade career, he conveyed unusual warmth and friendliness, in Guest’s series of comedies and in hundreds of other roles. In recent years, he’d been on “Modern Family” and made frequent appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” My dad texted me every time he showed up—“Fred Willard is playing George Washington in a Kimmel skit”; “Kimmel has Fred Willard on as the headmaster of Trump’s military school”—and I understood why. It felt like our friend was on TV. Willard was his own planet, with his own gravitational force. You tuned in simply to enjoy being in his presence.

Guest’s improvised, documentary-style comedies helped showcase Willard’s particular gift: a sublime talent for inhabiting the genial American blowhard, the charming pontificator, professor, politician, or pitchman who is more comfortable in the spotlight than out of it, and for whom every opportunity to speak is an opportunity to spin gossamer silliness indefinitely. Willard brought an innate sense of commitment to his roles—his stream-of-consciousness dog-show commentator in “Best in Show,” his joyously dippy band manager in “A Mighty Wind”—and his demeanor had an innate gentleness. Even his characters’ self-regard left you with a little something to love. (“Lotta hearts in dogs’ throats,” he says, at the dog show, before the champion is announced.) One of the brilliant things about “Guffman” is that, compared with the other ragtag talents of Blaine, the Albertsons are genuinely welcome theatrical presences: they’re stagey but competent, all too delighted to be professional. Early on, after a bunch of hair-raising auditions for the town’s big sesquicentennial show, the Albertsons arrive in matching green-and-white windbreakers, miming, singing “Midnight at the Oasis,” dancing like plucky, arthritic cheerleaders—and it’s a relief. In all the Guest movies, Willard’s wonderful improvised hooey, delivered with joyful confidence, helps center us, just as the Albertsons help center “Red, White, and Blaine.”

Willard grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and he went to military school at age twelve. He played baseball at the Virginia Military Institute and served in the Army, then turned to performing: theatre in New York, Second City in Chicago. He started acting on TV in the sixties. Willard met Guest in an Off Broadway production of Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders,” directed by Alan Arkin, in 1969. “I knew something was off when Fred actually started doing lines that weren’t in the play, to me,” Guest told Charlie Rose, in 2003. “I said to myself, ‘You’re different,’ and he is.”

In 1977, Willard got a role on Norman Lear’s “Fernwood Tonight,” playing the dim-witted announcer sidekick to Martin Mull’s beige-suited talk-show host. “They said I was perfect for the part—they needed someone who was a complete fool,” Willard said to David Letterman, in 1982. He waved his hand near his head: “You have a little trap that says, ‘Wait, I shouldn’t say this—I’ll sound foolish.’ And, when I did that show, I just left the door open.” In 1984, he reëncountered Guest in “This Is Spinal Tap,” in which Willard had a small role as a military officer and Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer played the band. He appeared on game shows and talk shows, and in movies and sitcoms, throughout the seventies and eighties; he’s especially delightful in the 1987 Steve Martin romantic comedy “Roxanne,” as Mayor Deebs, the gimmick-loving, Don Johnson-suited airhead running a Colorado mountain town. (A toast he makes: “I would rather be with the people of this town . . . than with the finest people in the world!”) But his big break, after three decades of being a successful working actor, was “Waiting for Guffman.”

Guest was inspired to write “Guffman” after watching a junior-high production of “Annie Get Your Gun”: observing the pervasive quality of earnestness—“how devoted they were to do the best performance they could, albeit at the level that they were working at,” he’s said—touched him. The resulting comedic environment, in which big dreams collide with regular people with regular abilities, was perfectly suited to Willard’s talents. On “Charlie Rose,” Guest said that, on set, actors particularly enjoyed watching Willard improvise: “Everyone is watching Fred work. Without exception. It’s like kids at a party.” Then he showed a clip from “A Mighty Wind.” In it, Willard’s manager character, a blond, moussed guy in a trombone-print shirt, interrupts a group of plucky folk singers rehearsing a sea shanty for a show. “I’ve got an idea, a very literate reference,” he tells them. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with a book about a pirate captain—his name is Moby-Dick. He was chasing some big whale, and he had a catchphrase he’d always yell out: ‘Thar she blows!’ So I thought if you could do that . . .” He goes on to suggest that they try a bit where they get drenched in water, several times, mid-performance—“Even the ladies!”—and, at the end of the song, they’ll turn their guitars over, “and water splashes out. Kerplunk! Just a thought.” He looks overjoyed by his helpful beneficence. Before they shot the scene, Guest said, his only instruction to Willard had been, “They’re rehearsing . . . and you interrupt them.”

Willard’s instantly adored performances in Guest’s movies, especially in “Best in Show,” gave his career a second life, and new kinds of roles. He was cast in Judd Apatow’s “Undeclared” (“Who’s that new prof in the fancy duds? Is it Ricky Martin? No, it’s just me!”); “Everybody Loves Raymond”; “Wall-E,” where he became the first live-action actor in a Pixar movie (he tells space travellers that they might experience “some slight bone loss”); and “Anchorman.” (“Damn it! Who typed a question mark on the teleprompter?” he yells, after Ron Burgundy seems to question his own name. “Anything you put on that teleprompter, Burgundy will read!”) His final project, a role in Steve Carell’s forthcoming series “Space Force,” mirrors an early one, in a 1978 TV movie of the same name. (“Captain Stoner, is this another one of your dumb drills?”)

All along, Willard’s instincts made us feel better about our own, by showing us characters who are even more absurd than we are. In an interview recalling the Guest movies, Willard described the first scene he shot for “Guffman.” It was in a library, and when the camera began rolling nobody spoke for a few seconds—so he did. “I said, ‘I’ve always wondered, if you take out a library book and lose it, do you have to pay dues forever?’ ” His clueless character, Ron, he explained, just might want to know whether you’d have to “pay a nickel a day till infinity.” The scene unfolded from there. The lesson, he said: “If you have nothing to say, just start talking.”

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