Fred Willard, who parlayed a knack for naive characters into costarring roles on the television series Fernwood 2 Night and Everybody Loves Raymond and in several memorable films, has died. He was 86 and his death was confirmed by his agent, Michael Eisenstadt.
“Fred was one of the busiest comedic actors in a career which lasted over 50 years,” Eisenstadt said in a note. “He had recently completed his Emmy nominated recurring role on Modern Family and can be seen later this month in his recurring role as Steve Carrell’s dad in the Netflix series Space Force. Jimmy Kimmel had Fred recur on his show on an average of every two weeks doing comedic sketches until the stay-at-home order began. Fred truly enjoyed every role and gave each performance his own special spin. He was truly a comedic genius.”
Emmy-nominated for three consecutive years for his role as father-in-law Hank MacDougall on TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond. He was also Emmy-nominated for his role as Frank Dunphy, father of Phil, on Modern Family.
A versatile comic actor, Willard was also station director Ed Harken in the two Anchorman films, and was a voice star in the animated film WALL-E in 2008.
Willard was a longtime collaborator with writer-director Christopher Guest, appearing in several of his mockumentaries. He was an Air Force Colonel in This Is Spinal Tap, announcer Buck Laughlin in Best in Show, manager Mike LaFontaine in A Mighty Wind and newsmag host Chuck Porter in For Your Consideration.
He was also seen in Wizards of Waverly Place, in Buck Henry’s First Family, as Basil St. Mosely inThe Wedding Planner and in Family Matters, among many other shows.
Perhaps Willard’s biggest role came In 1977, when he appeared on the much-touted late-night syndicated comedy Fernwood 2 Night, playing co-host and sidekick Jerry Hubbard opposite Martin Mull as Barth Gimble on the faux talk show. The series was produced by Norman Lear and Alan Thicke was a spinoff of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The show was rebranded as America 2-Night in its second season. He collaborated with Mull in several more TV projects and the 1988 film Portrait of a White Marriage.
Born Frederick Charles Willard in the Shaker Heights section of Cleveland, Ohio, Willard saw his die when he was 12. He was sent by his mother to military school in Louisville, Kentucky, and then he served in the US Army for two years, being stationed in Germany.
After that, he moved to New York and studied acting, forming a comedy act with fellow student Vic Greco. They toured US clubs and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 and The Steve Allen Show, both huge cultural achievements for their time for a comedy team.
After they split, Willard joined Second City in Chicago, and later was a cofounder of improv group Ace Trucking Company.
He moved back to television in 1966, becoming a regular guest star on such shows as Get Smart.
In the 1980s, he was one of the hosts on the NBC reality show Real People, executive produced by George Schlatter; and hosted a 1978 installment of Saturday Night Live, an appearance remembered as a store clerk in a venue that only sold scotch tape.
In film, he appeared in Fun With Dick and Jane (1977), How to Beat the High Cost of Living (1980), Permanent Midnight (1998), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Monster House (2004), Epic Movie (2007), Max Rose (2013) and Fifty Shades of Black (2016), among others.
His playwright/TV writer wife, Mary, died in July 2018. His daughter, Hope, issued a statement noting, “My father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old. He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”