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Fred Willard, comedian and ‘Modern Family’ actor, dead at 86

The Second City alum’s many film credits included “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show.”

Fred Willard, shown arriving at the fifth annual BritWeek in Los Angeles, died Saturday, May 16, 2020.
Matt Sayles/AP

Fred Willard, who emerged from Chicago’s Second City to become a prolific, long-running comic actor known for playing clueless or incompetent characters, has died at 86.

His daughter Hope confirmed the death on Twitter:

“It is with a heavy heart that I share the news 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.”

The Second City said he died Friday in Los Angeles. No cause of death was disclosed.

Willard indeed remained in demand well into his senior years. He had a recurring role on the hit ABC sitcom “Modern Family” as the fun-loving father of Phil Dunphy (Ty Burell). The character, seen throughout the show’s 11-season run, died in an episode that aired in January.

Fred Willard (right, with Ty Burrell) makes his final appearance as Frank Dunphy on “Modern Family” during the episode of Jan. 16, 2020.
ABC

His work there earned Willard his fourth Prime-Time Emmy nomination. The first three honored his performances as Amy’s tradition-minded father on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” where he was paired with Georgia Engel as his wife.

Before his death he shot another paternal role as a general’s dad in “Space Force,” a comedy series premiering May 29 on Netflix. Steve Carell, a fellow Second City alum who stars as the general, tweeted Saturday that Willard was “the funniest person that I’ve ever worked with.”

He was a fixture of director Christopher Guest’s largely unscripted ensemble comedy films, putting his improv talents to use to play a travel agent with showbiz ambitions in “Waiting for Guffman,” an over-his-head dog show announcer in “Best in Show,” a child star turned talent manager in “A Mighty Wind” and an entertainment journalist in “For Your Consideration.”

Guest and collaborator Eugene Levy would give actors a framework for the story but entrust them to devise their own dialogue for their characters.

“It really makes you more creative,” Willard told the Sun-Times while promoting “Best in Show” in 2000. “I don’t know, I think they shot something like 300 hours of film, editing that down to a finished 82-minute movie. Going in, you know it’s a case of throwing every pitch you have. What he doesn’t like will come out, but you don’t want to leave the set at the end of the day thinking, ‘Darn! I should have done that!’ ”

Fred Willard (left, with Jim Piddock) portrays the dimwitted announcer at an elite dog competition in “Best in Show.”

He also appeared in Guest’s HBO series “Family Tree.” Earlier he worked with Guest in director Rob Reiner’s seminal rock ’n’ roll satire “This Is Spinal Tap,” contributing a rich cameo as an officer welcoming the heavy metal band to a gig on a military base.

He also holds the distinction of being the first person to appear in live action in a Pixar film: the Oscar-winning hit “Wall-E.” Willard is seen as the CEO of a massive retail company building a spaceship to transport people from an uninhabitable Earth.

The Ohio native’s rise to fame included a brief but educational stint in Chicago at The Second City, where he was hired in 1965 along with future stand-up comedy star Robert Klein. He appears in two revues there, “Off the Road” and “This and That.”

“I have worked with several kinds of improvisational approaches, but the best was Second City where they teach you how to get into a scene, move the scene along and never go for a cheap joke,” he said in the 2000 interview.

A young Fred Willard (left) appears in a 1966 Second City cast photo with Robert Klein.
Second City

Comedian David Steinberg, his castmate at Second City, singled out Willard as exceptionally clever — and weird. “He was so brilliantly funny, playing these offbeat unique characters all the time, and it was just hard to do a scene with him,” Steinberg said in the book “The Second City Unscripted,” by former Sun-Times reporter Mike Thomas. “But he and I did a lot of scenes together. Fred was totally unique. The trick to becoming an audience favorite was originality. He was totally original. You never saw anything like Fred.”

In one scene that was his idea, Willard played the host of an amateur hour doing his best to support the terrible performers. When one of them (Joan Bassie) impersonated a catatonic fit, Willard couldn’t get her out of it and ended up carrying her stiff body offstage.

Grateful for his time in Old Town, he continued to appear in Second City projects and at its events for the rest of his life.

Fred Willard (right) attends a 2014 benefit at Second City in Chicago with David Koechner (from left), Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit and Tim Meadows. | Photo by Jennifer Girard
Jennifer Girard/Sun-Times Media

“Fred was one of the kindest, most generous souls I have ever met and one of the funniest humans to ever grace that Second City stage, always game,” Second City CEO and longtime friend Andrew Alexander said Saturday. “It was no accident that he was always working; he was adored by both audiences and the industry alike. We lost one of the greats.”

Willard became nationally known on “Fernwood 2 Night,” an irreverent 1970s TV talk show parody (later “America 2 Night”). He played Jerry Hubbard, the sidekick to Martin Mull’s Garth Gimble. Two decades later, Willard reteamed with Mull as his character’s husband.

Later he became a go-to actor for sketches on real talk shows, first “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and more recently “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” This year he appeared with Kimmel as a cruise-ship rep condemning the obscene attire worn on his ships.

“There was no man sweeter or funnier,” Kimmel said on Twitter. “We were so lucky to know Fred Willard and will miss his many visits.”

In 2012, Willard had a brush with the law. The actor was arrested after being suspected of committing a lewd act at a Hollywood adult theater.

Willard was fired from a narrating job and had to complete a diversion program. He called the arrest “very embarrassing” but insisted he did nothing wrong.

“It’s the last time I’m going to listen to my wife when she says, `‘Why don’t you go and see a movie?’ ” Willard said during an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s NBC show “Late Night.”

His death comes nearly two years after his wife Mary Willard died at the age of 71. She was a playwright and TV writer, earning four Emmy nominations.

Contributing: AP