Actor Fred Willard has passed away aged 86 in May 0f 2020. Contemporary audiences will recognise the comic actor from his performances as Frank Dunphy in the ABC sitcom Modern Family and Ed Harken in the Anchorman films.
Willard notched up more than 300 on-screen credits in his film and television career, which kicked off in the 1960s. His CV included appearances on iconic TV shows like Get Smart, Roseanne and Everybody Loves Raymond. He also showed up in a wide range of films, from National Lampoon’s Movie Madness to The Wedding Planner and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.
But for many, Willard will always be remembered for his roles in the Christopher Guest mockumentaries This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind and Best In Show. Here’s a reminder of Willard’s most memorable on-screen moments.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984):
Willard excels as Air Force Lt. Bob Hookstratten in 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. When Tap arrive for a performance in front of the military, Willard guides them around the facility. “We are such fans of your music and all of your records,” he tells the band. “I’m not speaking of yours personally, but the whole genre – rock’n’roll and so many exciting things that are happening in music today.” He plays the character with a perfect balance of dad joke-patter and professional prudishness.
Best In Show (2000):
Nearly two decades after Spinal Tap, Willard made another stand-out appearance in a Christopher Guest-written mockumentary. Willard’s Buck Laughlin commentates the prestigious Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, around which the Best In Show action circulates. It’s pure comic relief – Laughlin is oblivious to the customs of dog shows, or social etiquette for that matter. “Good way to judge a woman,” he says. “Have her run away from you and then run back.”
A Mighty Wind (2003):
Willard was back in another Christopher Guest/Eugene Levy mockumentary just three years after Best In Show. This time around Willard played Mike LaFontaine, manager of the hapless New Main Street Singers. In a previous career, LaFontaine appeared in the forgotten sitcom Wha’ Happened? A detail he’s none too shy about.
“As you know back in [1970-something] I starred on a series called Wha’ Happened?,” he tells the film crew. “And every time something would go wrong, I would look at the camera and say, ‘Hey. Wha’ happened?’ We had a lot of fun with that and a lot of other catch phrases.”
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Most contemporary viewers will have discovered Willard via his performance as channel 4 station director Ed Harken in Anchorman. By this point, Willard had been typecast. His characters tended to be affable, but prone to inappropriate or eyebrow-raising comments. No complaints, though – if it ain’t broke, don’t mess with it.
“I have no idea where he would’ve gotten a hold of German pornographer,” says Harken, presumably on the phone to his son’s school. “But you and I are mature adults. We’ve both seen our share of pornographic materials. Oh you never have?”
Everybody Loves Raymond (2003-05):
Willard played the ultra-religious southerner Hank MacDougall in seasons 8 and 9 of Everybody Loves Raymond. He reflected on the character’s stringent beliefs in a Ken Boxer Live appearance. “I thought it was too extreme until I ran into somebody at a party who said, ‘Man I grew up in the South and you hit it right on the head,’” he said. “[As MacDougall] I wouldn’t eat cupcakes, I wouldn’t drink carbonated beverages, wouldn’t watch television.”