TRIBUTE to the LATE FRED WILLARD
For several weeks now, I’ve been recommending under-the-radar movies for quarantine viewing -- hoping you can select something decent that you haven’t already seen.
How about this week we look instead at an under-the-radar actor: Fred Willard.
Comedian, writer and oft-seen star of TV and film, Willard died of natural causes last Friday at the age of 86.
Here’s an admittedly personal selection of worthy Willard work -- mostly supporting roles -- on both the big and small screen:
“Silver Streak” (1976)
Willard had a very small part in this very big hit for headliners Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor and Jill Clayburgh. Directed by Arthur Hiller (“Love Story,” “The Hospital,” “The In-Laws”), this entertaining action-comedy is set aboard the titular cross-country train, with elements of mystery and romance capped off by a spectacular crash. One of the few films that offers a real feel for the nostalgic microcosm of long-distance train travel.
“This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)
With this bracingly comic study of a fictional heavy metal band, director Rob Reiner and his three co-writers practically patented the term “mockumentary.” While it’s quite canny about the absurdities and excesses of rock (one Spinal Tap album, “Smell the Glove,” is released with an all-black cover), what’s perhaps more remarkable is that by the end, we actually care about these misguided souls -- who, like so many others in pop music, are heading all-too-quickly toward the discount bin.
“Best in Show” (2000)
Willard seemed fond of mockumentaries -- or perhaps he was just a favorite for writer-director Christopher Guest, who after starring in and co-scripting “Spinal Tap” went on to cast Willard in no less than five such films. It’s hard to pick one title from these cult classics (“A Mighty Wind,” “Waiting for Guffman”) -- but this savvy send-up of dog shows seems to be the best-loved Guest. Along with Willard, it features lots of other under-the-radar talent: Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Larry Miller, Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, Bob Balaban and, in an early role, Jane Lynch.
“Monster House” (2006)
A pioneering venture into stop-motion animation, “Monster House” is a unique, Tim-Burton-like blend of horror and humor. Best not to say much about the plot, which involves a creepy neighborhood house that seems to be alive -- and hungry. Willard, who did a lot of late-career vocal work, plays the father of one boy who is drawn to the haunted mansion.
Pixar’s ninth nearly perfect film in a row -- computer-animated sci-fi about a future earth wrecked by clutter and pollution. Its protagonist is a good-hearted robot whose daily job is to tidy the trash -- but who winds up getting whisked off to outer space, where the plot takes a typical Pixar left turn. Gorgeous, funny and heartfelt, with Willard getting some live-action time as the comically named Shelby Forthright, head of the corporation which is, by and large, responsible for making our planet unlivable.
If you’re tired of binge-watching modern shows, cue up these time-tested Willard favorites, which may have fallen off your cable-network radar. They all feature the actor in repeating roles, but as with his movies, he rarely has a major part.
“Fernwood 2 Night” (1977)
Short-lived adjunct to “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” this satire of late-night talk shows in turn spawned two of its own spin-offs. Willard plays the on-air sidekick to Martin Mull’s host.
Willard had a recurring role in seasons 8 and 9 of this 10-season smash that made a star of its titular wise-cracking suburban mother and her long-suffering husband, played respectively by Roseanne Barr and John Goodman. Briefly and much less successfully revived as “The Conners” in 2018 (without Willard -- or Barr!); but the initial run remains uproarious.
“Mad About You” (1992-99)
Another multi-season hit -- this one much more romantic, with upwardly mobile Manhattan marrieds beautifully played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. It featured a tasty smorgasbord of supporting players and guest stars, including Richard Kind, Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Cyndi Lauper, Ed Asner, Bruce Willis, Andre Agassi, Yoko Ono, Kevin Bacon, Billy Joel, Al Gore, Jerry Lewis -- and Willard, who had a five-episode run in the final season. This popular show was also briefly revived in 2019.
“Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996-2005)
By now you must have noticed that Willard had an uncanny knack for picking hits -- including this winsome CBS sit-com that notched 210 episodes, making household names of its entire cast (Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, Doris Roberts, Peter Boyle, Brad Garrett). Willard was Emmy-nominated for his recurring role from 2003-2005.
“Modern Family” (2009-2020)
Returning to the mockumentary format, Willard again scored an Emmy nom as Frank Dunphy in this long-running hit that observed its finale last month. His co-stars included Ed O’Neill, Sofia Vergara and Ty Burrell.
I wish I had space to list the hundreds of other movies and shows in which Willard worked. Look ’em up sometime -- if you can tear yourself away from the many entertaining selections above.