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Remembering Fred Willard, Emmy-Winning Comedy Actor And Improviser

Willard, who died May 15, was known for his scene-stealing roles in the Christopher Guest films Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, and later the series Modern Family. Originally broadcast in 1997.

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Other segments from the episode on May 22, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 22, 2020: Obituary for Astrid Kircherer; Review of 'Tokyo Godfathers;' Obituary for Fred Willard; Review of 'The Trip to Greece.'

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Fred Willard, the comedy actor and improv comic, appeared in hundreds of TV shows and movies over his lengthy career and in hundreds more talk shows playing even more characters and also being himself. He died last Friday. He was 86 years old. Earlier this week, Jimmy Kimmel devoted an entire show to Fred Willard, a favorite guest and sketch player on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," and noted how he had first been introduced to Fred Willard, as I had, by watching and loving "Fernwood 2 Night," the 1977 spinoff of Norman Lear's soap opera spoof, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." In "Fernwood 2 Night," Martin Mull played smarmy small-town Ohio TV talk show host Barth Gimble, and Fred Willard played his clueless sidekick Jerry Hubbard. In this clip, he surprises the host by reciting some poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT")

FRED WILLARD: (As Jerry Hubbard) Kids, you should listen to this, too, because you'll grow old. Remember me, remember me when I have passed away. Remember that I lived and died, as you will too one day. If I can write these few short lines, it will not be in vain if, after I am dead and gone, you still recall my name. Remember me.

MARTIN MULL: (As Barth Gimble) To follow up, Jerry, that's actually very pretty. Who wrote that?

WILLARD: (As Jerry) Who wrote it? Oh, I don't know. Who knows? It's an old poem. Probably some old guy dead and gone.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Fred Willard and Martin Mull would reteam two decades later playing a gay couple on "Roseanne." On television, Willard's other credits over the years included Emmy-nominated recurring roles on "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Modern Family" and hosting "Saturday Night Live."

And we haven't even mentioned Fred Willard's movie appearances. From "Austin Powers" to "Anchorman," he seemed to pop up everywhere good movie comedy was being made. That was true most of all of the largely improvised movies directed by Christopher Guest, which took full advantage of Willard's improv days at Chicago's Second City. He played an Air Force lieutenant in "This Is Spinal Tap," a dog show announcer in "Best In Show," a folk group manager in "A Mighty Wind" and a TV entertainment reporter in "For Your Consideration" - very funny movies, very funny performances.

Terry Gross spoke with Fred Willard in 1997. They began with a clip from "Waiting For Guffman," in which Willard played a travel agent who, with his wife, is auditioning for a role in a new community theater musical. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of Blaine, Mo. The director running the audition is played by Christopher Guest, and Willard's wife and audition partner is played by Catherine O'Hara.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAITING FOR GUFFMAN")

WILLARD: (As Ron Albertson) Ding dong.

CATHERINE O'HARA: (As Sheila Albertson) Oh. I wonder who knows I'm vacationing here at the Oasis.

WILLARD: (As Ron) Am I late?

O'HARA: (As Sheila) You.

WILLARD: (As Ron) Surprised?

O'HARA: (As Sheila) How did you find me?

WILLARD: (As Ron) I have my ways.

O'HARA: (As Sheila) Would you like to come in for coffee?

(Singing) You don't need to answer. There's no need to speak. I'll be your belly dancer, prancer.

WILLARD: (As Ron, singing) And I will be your sheikh. I don't need a harem, honey, when you're by my side. And you won't need a camel, no, no, when I take you for a ride.

O'HARA: (As Sheila) We'll need some coffee to with that ride, won't we?

WILLARD: (As Ron) You're always full of surprises.

O'HARA: (As Sheila, laughter).

WILLARD: (As Ron) But, say, I wonder, do we have time for that coffee?

O'HARA: (As Sheila) What time is it?

WILLARD: (As Ron) What time is it? Haven't you been paying attention? It's...

FRED WILLARD AND CATHERINE O'HARA: (As Ron and Sheila, singing) ...Midnight at the Oasis.

CHRISTOPHER GUEST: (As Corky St. Clair, clapping) Oh.

WILLARD: (As Ron) Thank you.

GUEST: (As Corky) Good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Would you describe your character in "Waiting For Guffman?"

WILLARD: Well, I think I'm a guy who has no self-realization. He doesn't realize how overbearing he is. I'm married to Catherine O'Hara. We are travel agents in the small town of Blaine. We're very good travel agents, even though we've never been outside of Blaine, Mo. And we've also been in some of the earlier amateur productions here in this town - for instance, the musical version of "Backdraft."

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLARD: We are called into audition for it. And we go in sort of bemused by the whole thing because we know it's really just a formality that he's making us go through the tryout there because we know that we are going to be the stars of the show, as we have been with the other shows. And so we try to put on that false humility.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLARD: And I say that in a nutshell is our - my character, and I don't realize how overbearing I am. And I enjoy doing it because I guess there's also a little bit of that in me. I think if I were to just drop that little - you know, open that little door in your brain that says, don't do that or don't say that, all this might come out.

GROSS: It strikes me, you've really made a career out of playing really square people.

WILLARD: (Laughter) I guess I have. I - you know, I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I went to a military prep school. I also went to - attended and graduated from Virginia Military Institute. So I can kind of relate to that mentality, that very conservative, square mentality, which always amused me. And what you do when something amuses you like that, you try to mimic it and dress yourself in that and do it on - in a performance. And it's always interested me. So I tend to - I grab on to those characters very easily.

I was in "Spinal Tap." I have one scene that a lot of people seem to remember. I played the sergeant who welcomes the hard rock group Spinal Tap to the Air Force base. And people said, boy, you just grabbed that character - because I can relate to it. I understand it. I've lived with those people. I understand their mentality. And I've always enjoyed doing it. As a result, a lot of people think I am very square.

I was in a comedy group called the Ace Trucking Company, and we had some very colorful characters in it, and I usually played the anchor guy. I was always the boss. I was always the guy who was trying to keep discipline. And we were in the dressing room one night, about a Friday night, and one of the guys in the other group started talking to me. He says, you know, it's taken all week for me to talk to you; I didn't think I would like you because of what I see on stage (laughter). And it upset me very much, and I thought, gee, that's what people are thinking of me.

GROSS: Why don't we actually hear the scene from "Spinal Tap?"

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS SPINAL TAP")

WILLARD: (As Air Force Lieutenant Bob Hookstratten) Ah. The - Hookstratten. You are Spinal Tarp?

JUNE CHADWICK: (As Jeanine Pettibone) I am Jeanine Pettibone.

WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) Jeanine.

CHADWICK: (As Jeanine) And this is Spinal Tap.

WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) Spinal Tap.

CHADWICK: (As Jeanine) Yes.

WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) My mistake. I'm Lieutenant Bob Hookstratten. Welcome to Lindberg Air Force Base. Is this your gentlemen's first visit to a military facility?

HARRY SHEARER: (As Derek Smalls) Yeah.

WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) Fine. May I start by saying how thrilled we are to have you here? We are such fans of your music and all of your records.

SHEARER: (As Derek) That's great.

WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) I'm not speaking of yours, personally, but the whole genre of the rock 'n' roll...

MICHAEL MCKEAN: (As David St. Hubbins) I can understand that, yeah.

WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) ...And so many of the exciting things that are happening in music today.

SHEARER: (As Derek) It's a great genre.

WILLARD: (As Hookstratten) And let me explain a bit about what's going on. This is our monthly at-ease weekend. Gives us a chance to kind of let down our hair, although I see you all have a head start on that (laughter). These haircuts wouldn't pass military muster, believe me. Although I shouldn't talk; my hair's getting a little shaggy, too. Better not get too close to you; they'll think I'm part of the band. I'm joking, of course. Shall we go in and I'll show you around? Walk this way, please.

GROSS: I think one of the places where you perfected this persona of the square guy who really thinks he's happening and talented was on "Fernwood 2 Night," when you were...

WILLARD: Oh.

GROSS: ...The sidekick for Martin Mull. And "Fernwood 2 Night" was this, you know, parody of late-night talk entertainment shows.

WILLARD: Absolutely. It was an improviser's dream because they gave me this character. I was supposed to have been the host, the star of this small town, Fernwood.

You know, the - I played Cowboy Bill, and I probably hosted the late-night movie in the matinee, and I had a - probably had a game show. And here's this new sharpie, comes in from Miami, who is Martin Mull, and I'm deflated. So it was a perfect character to play. You could be egotistical. You could pull out all the stops of censoring yourself. I was a bit stupid. So anything I said, nothing could go wrong with what I said because it fit right into the character.

GROSS: Since you have made such a career on playing square...

WILLARD: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Can you give us some tips on how to be convincingly square?

WILLARD: I think you have to keep your eye on one object - that is, let's get down to business. You can be amused at what's going about you in a very offhand - that could be one of the tangents, yes. And if you're amused at something, you let it be known that you're amused. You say, yes, I am amused at what you have said, and I enjoy a good laugh as well as the next man, but let's get back to the point in hand. You see the point?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLARD: You can't ever - you actually have no sense of humor, but the people who have the least sense of humor are usually the ones who are the first to say, I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next man. And, you know, what follows that is, but...

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

WILLARD: ...This is very serious. So that's it. You've got to strip away any sense of humor you have and just know that there's some bottom line there, which I have never deciphered what the bottom line is - getting some job accomplished, I guess. And I've always dreaded that - to be in that atmosphere. I've found myself in it.

When I went to New York, I worked in an office, a credit office. It was a subsidiary of Dun & Bradstreet. And I, for a couple of years, had a boss who I kind of emulated when I have to play a boss or someone who is very strict - I kind remember him. He was just a big blowhard, and you could see right through him. And I was on the brink of being fired for two years, and every time I was ready to be fired, someone else in my department would quit or leave, and I'd be back in his good graces.

And I remember, near the end, I would come in - I remember one morning oversleeping and coming in, like, at 10:30 and walking into the office, and my friends were walking out of the office. They were going to coffee break. I said, where are you going? They said, we're going to get coffee. So I turned around (laughter) and got coffee with them. So I said, if I'm coming in at 10:30, I might as well walk in at 11.

Here's a hint for people who are working in an office and have one foot in the office and one foot out - when you leave at night, leave your sport - your jacket there, so when you walk in the door late, you're in your shirtsleeves, so the boss assumes that maybe you were there even earlier than him, and he feels a little guilty that he - he'll come in a little earlier the next day to see what time you actually did get in. That's just a little trick I'm giving away for free.

GROSS: Oh, that's good. Thank you very much.

WILLARD: Yeah.

GROSS: So how do you wear your hair when you're not on camera?

WILLARD: (Laughter) I think that is the strangest question I've ever been asked. I'll have to remember that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, I ask that to all my guests (laughter).

WILLARD: I comb it straight over my forehand, like the famed Ish Kabibble from the Kay Kyser show. No, I wear it pretty much the same. I've...

(LAUGHTER)

WILLARD: I did like my hairdo in "Waiting For Guffman," where I was playing what I thought would be Curly from "Oklahoma," in curls over my forehand. And I looked at that, and I said, my gosh, I was trying to be funny, but I look darn good there.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLARD: That's a style I ought to adopt.

GROSS: So I've got one this question for you. How come I don't see you in more things?

WILLARD: You know (laughter) - I'll give you the phone number of my agent, who calls me after every job and says, how'd you get that? You know, I don't know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLARD: I have - last year and this year, I hit, really, a streak of gold. I was on "Murphy Brown." I went to "Family Matters." I went to "Friends." I went to "Roseanne." I mean, I went, like, eight weeks in a row without missing a week of work.

GROSS: Is Willard your real last name?

WILLARD: No, my real name is Johnny Fortune. But the...

(LAUGHTER)

WILLARD: No. Yes, it is. Fred Willard. Yes, that's it. I'm stuck with that. It's not the most glamorous name, but it's mine, yes.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, Fred Willard, thank you so much for talking with us.

WILLARD: Thank you for having me on.

BIANCULLI: Fred Willard speaking to Terry Gross in 1997. The familiar comic actor from so many TV and movie comedies died last Friday. He was 86 years old.

Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "The Trip To Greece," the latest talk and travel movie from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRANFORD MARSALIS' "CAROLINA SHOUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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