Fred Willard, actor known for comically dimwitted characters, dies at 86

CA: 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night Red Carpet of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)

Fred Willard, the comic actor known for his genial but dunderheaded characters, has died. He was 86.

Though most sources reported that he was born in 1939, some asserted that he was actually six years older, with a 1933 birthdate.

Willard was an astonishingly ubiquitous presence especially on TV but also in movies for decades, though almost always in small but memorable roles.

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Fred Willard
FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2011 file photo, actor Fred Willard poses at a cocktail reception for The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Performers Peer Group in Los Angeles. Willard said his recent lewd conduct arrest at an adult movie theater was "embarrassing as hell" but insisted he did nothing wrong. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
Fred Willard at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night Red Carpet of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) held at TLC Chinese Theatre on April 06, 2017 in Los Angeles, California, United States (Photo by JC Olivera) *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***
Fred Willard attends the LA Premiere of "50 Shades of Black" held at Regal L.A. Live on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Salangsang/Invision/AP)
Fred Willard attends the Governors Ball for the Television Academy's Creative Arts Emmy Awards at LA Convention Center on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)
Fred Willard seen at Open Road Films Premiere of 'Fifty Shades of Black' at Regal L.A. Live on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Open Road Films/AP Images)
Fred Willard poses in the pressroom at the 42nd annual Daytime Emmy Awards at Warner Bros. Studios on Sunday, April 26, 2015, in Burbank, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Fred Willard arrives at The Black And Red Ball In Celebration Of The Final Seven Episodes Of "Mad Men" on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Fred Willard arrives at AMC's Black & Red Ball to celebrate the final episodes of "Mad Men" at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Invision for AMC/AP Images)
Fred Willard attends the SNL 40th Anniversary Special at Rockefeller Plaza on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Fred Willard arrives at the world premiere of "Planes: Fire And Rescue" at El Capitan Theatre on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Fred and Mary Willard pose together at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles' 2013 Rising Stars Gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Friday, Oct. 25, 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Fred Willard attends the Rising Stars Gala on October 26, 2012, Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
Fred Willard arrives at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Fred Willard arrives at The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XX & 20th Anniversary Party in the Barker Hangar on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009, in Santa Monica, CA. (AP Photo/Alaric Lambert)
Fred Willard arrives at the 134th Kentucky Derby Saturday, May 3, 2008, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/David Harpe)
Fred Willard arrives at the annual FOX All-Star Television Critics Association party at the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, Calif. on Monday, July 23, 2007. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Comedian Fred Willard poses at his home in Los Angeles, on Wednesday July 19, 2006. Willard, who probably gets more laughs per moments of screen time than anyone in the movies, made a hilarious appearance as a broadcaster in the 2000 film "Best in Show." This summer he voices a character in the animated "Monster House." (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Actor and comedian Fred Willard arrives for A Night at the Net, a pro-celebrity tennis event benefiting MusiCares Foundation on the opening night of the 77th annual Mercedes-Benz Cup Monday, July 28, 2003, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
MODERN FAMILY - "Legacy" - Phil pays a visit to his dad to make sure he is ok after hearing some concerning news about him. Meanwhile, Jay gives Claire and Mitch a bunch of their old childhood memorabilia that triggers them to reevaluate a long-held story about their first family vacation on an all-new episode of "Modern Family," WEDNESDAY, JAN. 15 (9:00-9:31 p.m. EST), on ABC. (Richard Cartwright/ABC via Getty Images) FRED WILLARD
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 06: Fred Willard (L) and Hope Willard attends the Farrah Fawcett Foundation's Tex-Mex Fiesta on September 06, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Farrah Fawcett Foundation)

The New York Times said in 2008: "He has become the king of the deadpan cameo, the guy who makes a one-shot appearance as an office manager or furniture salesman and ends up stealing the scene."

Willard was nominated four times for Emmy Awards, three of them (in 2003, 2004 and 2005) for playing Hank on "Everybody Loves Raymond" and the fourth in 2010 for his recurring role as Frank Dunphy, the father of Ty Burrell's Phil Dunphy, on "Modern Family."

In 2015 he won a Daytime Emmy for a story arc as John Forrester on "The Bold and the Beautiful"; he had previously been nominated in 1986 for outstanding talk or service show host for "What's Hot, What's Not."

The actor was long associated with improvisational comedy, going back to his days at Chicago's Second City in the 1960s and continuing with his small role in Rob Reiner's documentary-style "This Is Spinal Tap" — in 2015, Harry Shearer declared of Willard's work on the film: "He's from another galaxy; you just can't fathom where this stuff comes from. His energy is overpowering" — and the Christopher Guest-directed comedic mockumentaries "Waiting for Guffman" (1996), "Best in Show" (2000), "A Mighty Wind" (2003), "For Your Consideration" (2006) and 2016's "Mascots," in which a great deal of improvisation was utilized. The Detroit Free Press opined in 2014: " 'Best in Show,' with Willard playing a color commentator at a prestigious dog competition, is perhaps the best-loved" in this string of cult hits. The New York Times said that to play the "blissfully ill-informed dog show television announcer in 'Best in Show,'" Willard "trotted out every inappropriate dog joke and announcing cliché he could muster, drawing rave reviews and reinvigorating his career." The role "brought a cachet, buoyed by the YouTube and Nick at Night reruns of his old 'Fernwood Tonight' appearances, unlike anything Mr. Willard experienced in the first 30 years of his career. He suddenly became cool."

(Willard's improv-related activities also included hosting the TV series "Trust Us With Your Life" in 2012 and appearing at the Detroit Improv Festival in 2014.)

The actor's notable film roles also included Shelby Forthright, the hugely optimistic CEO of the Buy n Large Corporation, in Pixar's much-beloved "Wall-E" (2008), who is shown only in videos recorded at about the time of the Axiom '​s initial launch; Ed Harken, the news director of KVWN, in 2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy"; Dr. Willoughby, the medical school dean who interviewed Kal Penn's Kumar in "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" (2004); and the father of Alyson Hannigan's Michelle Flaherty in 2003's "American Wedding" (Roger Ebert said, "Rising to toast the union between his Irish family and the Jewish family of his new in-laws, he brings real warmth and sincerity to his hope that 'we can sit many happy shivas together' ").

It really all began for Willard when he played Jerry Hubbard, dimwitted sidekick to Martin Mull's talk show host Barth Gimble on the wickedly satirical, Norman Lear-created TV series "Fernwood Tonight" and "America 2-night" in 1977 and 1978. These shows were spinoffs from the seminal "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

Willard and Mull reteamed on the 1985 HBO mockumentary "The History of White People in America," then were reunited on a 1995 episode of "Roseanne" to play one of the first gay couples on television, and Willard recurred on the show after that.

He was the only human actor — the bartender — on Sid and Marty Krofft's "D.C. Follies," a political satire populated with puppets of presidents Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon and reporters Dan Rather and Ted Koppel, among others. The series ran on ABC from 1987-89.

Willard recurred on "Everybody Loves Raymond" from 2003-05 as Hank MacDougall, the father of Monica Horan's Amy MacDougall-Barone, who eventually becomes the wife of Brad Garrett's Robert Barone.

He appeared in Christopher Guest's HBO series "Family Tree" — an attempt to adapt his documentary-style comedy for television — in 2013.

The comic actor made dozens of appearances in sketches on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

In interviews Willard did not appear to be someone with lingering regrets, but he admitted that he wished he hadn't turned down the lead role of Ted Striker (eventually played by Robert Hays) in the hit comedy "Airplane!"

Frederick Charles Willard was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated from the Kentucky Military Institute and the Virginia Military Institute. After a brief tour in the Army in 1962, Willard and friend Vic Greco formed a comedy act that earned them a 1964 appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Willard auditioned successfully alongside Robert Klein for Chicago's Second City, portraying a nightclub manager and his employee. He was a founding member of the improvisational comedy group Ace Trucking Company; the troupe appeared regularly on ABC variety series "This Is Tom Jones" in 1969.

Willard and Second City colleagues including Robert Klein and David Steinberg appeared Off Broadway in "The Return of the Second City in '20,000 Frozen Grenadiers' " in 1966. Willard also appeared Off Broadway in 1969 in Jules Feiffer's hit comedy "Little Murders" (which was adapted into a film) and "Arf/The Great Airplane Snatch," in which he appeared with Lily Tomlin, among others.

Willard made his film debut in the 1967 exploitation film "Teenage Mother."

The actor guested on "Get Smart" in 1968, "Love, American Style" in 1970 and "The Bob Newhart Show" in 1975, and he appeared in the feature comedies "Silver Streak," starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, in 1976 and "Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), starring Jane Fonda and George Segal, but it was on "Fernwood Tonight" and "America 2-Night" that he created the genial, empty-headed and often inappropriate persona with which he remained associated throughout his professional life.

Willard told the New York Times in 2008: "I like to play the guy that has no self-awareness, kind of the likable buffoon who will stick his foot in his mouth and say the wrong thing."

In 2015 he adapted this persona for use in a series of commercials also starring Jeffrey Tambor for DirecTV in which Willard played the witless head of a cable company that merges with Tambor's.

Willard sold out the run of his nominally one-man show "Fred Willard: Alone at Last!" (which actually sported a number of other cast members) and led sketch comedy workshop the MoHo Group.

In 2006 Willard starred Off Broadway in "Elvis and Juliet," an original comedy written by his wife, Mary Willard, about the first meeting of an engaged couple's families, one of which is a clan of Vegas "tribute artists."

In 2014 Willard appeared as Cap'n Andy in a semi-staged production of "Showboat" at Lincoln Center that also featured Vanessa Williams, Jane Alexander and the New York Philharmonic.

In addition to wife Mary, Willard is survived by a daughter and grandson.

- This article first appeared on Variety

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