Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Fred Willard, From “Fernwood” to Forever, a Comic Genius Who Shied Away from the Spotlight

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Fred Willard was one of the greats. It wasn’t just that he was funny– he was– but he didn’t push it. His sense of humor was sly. In person he was one of the best people I knew in showbiz. Both he and his wife Mary, who died in 2018, were unaffected by Hollywood and never let it change them. I knew Fred was ill, but I am sad to acknowledge that he passed today at 86.

We first met Fred as Martin Mull’s sidekick on “Fernwood Tonight,” the spin off from Norman Lear’s “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” in 1975. Mull played Barth Gimble, local talk show host, in a hilarious send up of Johnny Carson and all talk shows of the time. Fred played Barth’s Ed McMahon, Jerry Hubbard, who was not nearly as insufferable as Barth, or clueless even though his blank looks were priceless.

There are only 44 episodes of “Fernwood Tonight” but it made Fred Willard a cult figure. If you look at his resume, he’d already been around, in a stealth way, appearing on “Get Smart” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” But after “Fernwood,” he never stopped working. He just appeared, like a non sequitir, in TV and movies. It was almost as if the people who hired him didn’t know about his cult following. But you felt like Fred was winking at you, even if he had to play it straight.

Fred’s real arc of success wouldn’t come until 1996, when he joined Christopher Guest’s ensemble with “Waiting for Guffman.” In the intervening years he could from crap like “Mama’s Family” to “This is Spinal Tap,” never once surrendering his subversiveness. He played the oddball mayor in Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” and managed to convey both wholesomeness and subversiveness.

“Spinal Tap” put him in the company of other off kilter comedians. Guest, who’d starred in that film, picked up Rob Reiner’s baton. With “Guffman,” Fred took off with the Guest repertory that included Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, and Parker Posey. “Best in Show,” tipped it over, followed by “A Mighty Wind,” “For Your Consideration,’ and “Mascots.”

So many times Fred couldn’t show up for the premiere or a screening of  a Guest film because he was working. “Where’s Fred?” I’d ask, and the group would say you know he’s doing whatever series. He was a guest or recurring on so many shows. Sometimes he and Judy would turn up at something unexpectedly and I’d say, “Fred, you’re on this, too?” He’d kind of shrug, as if to say, What can I do?

Can you make a career like that anymore? I don’t know. But Fred Willard did. I think as time goes by his real comic genius will be even more appreciated. I know I will miss him, and Mary, a lot. They were the real people in Hollywood you looked forward to seeing and were grateful you knew.

Fred Willard was nominated four times for Primetime Emmy Awards. He actually won a Daytime Emmy on “The Bold and the Beautiful” soap opera. But the awards don’t matter. He will never be forgotten. As with Jerry Stiller, I am in tears.

 

this clip is particularly poignant:

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedmanhttps://www.showbiz411.com
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
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