The Full and Amazing Career of Fred Willard, Part 1

During my short history as a blogger, I have looked at great actors, comedians, writers, voice actors, and humanitarians, but rarely do I encounter someone who fits all the above categories.  Today we look at the career of Fred Willard — actor, singer, comedian, writer, voice actor, and humanitarian.

Fred was born September 18, 1939 in Ohio.  His father worked in a bank. He sounds like he was a great dad; unfortunately he died when Fred was only 11.   He played baseball and dreamed of a career in the major leagues. He attended the Kentucky Military Institute playing baseball and graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with an English degree.  After graduation, he joined the army.  He moved to New York after his army stint and enrolled in the Showcase Theater, an acting school. He is a Second City alumnus. In 1968, he married his current spouse, Mary Lovell; they have one daughter and one grandson.

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In 1962, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show doing a comedy act with Vic Greco and his career took off from there.

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He was part of the Ace Trucking Company in the 1960s and early 1970s. Ace consisted of George Memmoli, Michael Mislove, Bill Saluga, Patti Deutsch, and Fred Willard.  They did innovative sketch comedy long before Saturday Night Live. Anyone who watched LaughIn or Match Game in the 70s will remember Patti Deutsch.  The rest of the company had successful acting careers, but no one could touch Willard’s filmography.

During his career, Willard has appeared in 148 television shows, 45 television movies, and 75 big-screen movies. He has raised money for Big Brothers/Big Sisters; Actors and Others for Animals; and the City of Hope, the John Wayne Cancer Society, among many others. He has hosted Market Warriors on PBS. Fred Willard has three Emmy nominations for his role of Hank MacDougal, Robert’s father-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond and another Emmy nomination for his role of Frank Dunphy on Modern Family. He has also won a variety of entertainment awards. Fred has also appeared in commercials, being the voice of Kelloggs Cereal, Sierra Mist, Old Navy, and LaQuinta Inns.

In addition to his acting and comedic career, Willard has appeared as himself in 157 different shows including documentaries, Fox NFL Sunday, $100,000 Pyramid, Hollywood Game Night, Celebrity Family Feud with his family, Ellen, Siskel and Ebert, Rachel Ray, and every late-night talk show you can think of:  Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Conan O’Brien, and Craig Kilborn.

Unfortunately, much of the news about Willard the past couple of years has stemmed from his arrest in Hollywood.  Because that was a major news story about him, I’ll address the incident briefly. In 2012, he was at the Tiki Theater, a porn theater.  The management said they had never seen him there before that night. An anti-prostitution law enforcement group monitors three theaters in the area. When they entered the theater, they spotted Willard in the back row. He was handcuffed and taken out of the theater. Another policeman went back into the theater, apparently to look for evidence. He was arrested for suspicion of engaging in a misdemeanor lewd act. He was never charged with the offense.  He referred to this time as very painful and embarrassing for him. He was forced to complete a sex education diversion program. While I don’t condone his choice of theaters that evening, I think it is extremely hypocritical and unrealistic of the Hollywood law enforcement to allow these theaters to operate but not expect certain behaviors to take place. It’s like an organization building a stadium and bringing in a professional team, but then telling the fans not to cheer. We all have made questionable choices and bad decisions, and I hate to see a poor decision made at age 72 define a man or tarnish his career so I prefer to concentrate on his long and amazing career.

Willard began his acting career in the 1960s, appearing in four shows including Get Smart.  In the 1970s, was in many sitcoms including Love American Style, The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne and Shirley, and Sirota’s Court, but the show that made him a household name was Fernwood Tonight.  He appeared in 37 episodes of Fernwood Tonight, one in Forever Fernwood, and 65 in American 2-Night. In 1976, a new show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, debuted. This show aired daily, racking up 325 episodes the year it was on. Mary was a strange housewife living in Fernwood, Ohio.  During the first episodes, she experienced mass murder, adultery, venereal disease, religious cults, and UFO sightings. She broke down on a national television talk show, Fernwood Tonight. Barth Gimble played by Martin Mull, was the host and his sidekick Jerry Hubbard was played by Fred Willard. Fernwood Tonight began as a spin-off and  was a parody of talk shows.  When famous people appeared, they had to have a reason for being in Fernwood. One example was when Tom Waite’s bus broke down there. Dabney Coleman appeared as the mayor of Fernwood.  The second season the show became American 2-Night when the talk show moved to California.

Willard continued his television work in the1980s appearing in Mama’s Family, Trapper John MD, The Love Boat, and Fame, among others. During the 1990s, he appeared in 34 shows. He was in Golden Girls, Murder She Wrote, Married with Children, Murphy Brown, Friends, Roseanne, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Just Shoot Me, and Mad About You.

He has not slowed down in this new century.  He has appeared in 82 shows, some of them animated series. He has been on Drew Carey, Hot in Cleveland, Community, and Modern Family. From 2007-2008, he had a recurring role on Back to You. I’m not sure why this show didn’t make it, considering the cast. Kelsey Grammer plays a news anchor who is forced to leave LA and take a job at the Pittsburgh station he left for the big time. He works with his ex-wife played by Patricia Heaton, his co-anchor; Ty Burrell as an inept field reporter; and Fred Willard, an overconfident and, often inaccurate, sportscaster. A few years later Willard would again work with Burrell, playing his father on Modern Family.

I’m getting tired just writing about everything he’s done, and we haven’t even discussed his movie career.  Among the 75 movies, the ones that stand out to me are Silver Streak, Fun with Dick and Jane, This is Spinal Tap, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Wedding Planner, Anchorman, Anchorman 2, Wall-E, and Roxanne.

In an interview written not long ago, Fred shared that he still writes a sketch a week and has boxes full. At 78 he is still going strong and doesn’t appear to be slowing down, so watch for Part 2 of the career of Fred Willard in ten years or so.

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Fred remains humble, often giving others credit and talking about their talents.  Here is what he had to say about working with Johnny Carson:  I remember Johnny Carson laughing effusively when I made my “Tonight” show debut in the early 1970’s as part of a sketch comedy group called the Ace Trucking Company. We didn’t even have a name when we first did the show, but one of my favorite moments was looking over to see him laughing, falling off his chair. This was topped only by another kind of tribute often paid by Johnny: imitation. We did a sketch about tough motorcyclists stopping into a shop and demanding shoes and coming away with handbags and ruffled blouses and stuff, and after it was over, Johnny kept saying, “I want some shoes,” like one of the characters, and that was just a kind of salute. To have him pick up a catchphrase and repeat it was just amazing.

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So how do you end a blog about someone who has such a zest for life.  Let’s end with some life lessons directly from Fred Willard:

You think you want to be famous. Then you see twenty or thirty people with cameras running after somebody coming out of a restaurant. And you say, “That might be fun for a night.” The idea is to be just famous enough that when you walk into a restaurant, the maître d’ says, “Oh, I have a nice table.”

Ballet I love for about five minutes. Then I want to see a comic come out.

When I was a kid, I remember one aunt drinking on Thanksgiving and falling asleep at the dinner table. Her husband said, “Betty, wake up and finish your drink.”

Opera has made me consider suicide.

Flying into Bora Bora makes you feel like you’re in The Wizard of Oz and suddenly it’s Technicolor.

There was ABC, CBS, and NBC when I was a kid. That was it. How difficult it must’ve been to be successful back then. Now I look up and notice I’m watching Channel 504. Everyone is a star of some show.

The remote has saved my sanity.

If you’re going to take a risk as a comic, make sure it’s surrounded by other things that you’re certain are funny.

When I was a kid, hearing something from the president was like hearing something from God. Now I hear the president and think, What is he, crazy?

My daughter thinks I’m a little more on the straight and narrow than I actually am.

If you like Albert Brooks, you’ll like anything he does.

Comedy relieves you. A lot of times we think we’re the only people bothered by certain things. Then you hear a comic say, “Don’t you hate it when . . .” And it’s “Oh, my God! Of course!”

Animated voice-over guys have it good.

A great director is someone who makes you feel like you’re moving forward.

I’ll tell you what does bother me: English actors doing American accents. I wouldn’t want to see five Americans doing Monty Python.

Another thing that annoys me: They do the inductions to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York. The museum is in Cleveland.

I remember hearing that when James Dean finished East of Eden, he sat in his dressing room and cried because the filming was ending. When they say, “That’s a wrap for Mr. Willard,” I say, “Oh, boy, thank you.”

It seems to me you’re always retired in this business. You know, after your last job.

When you get to a certain age, it’s kind of the same thing. There’s no new school to go to, no new teachers. There’s some comfort in that.

My father died when I was young. He was out delivering Christmas packages like he did every year. My mom said that after he delivered the packages, people looked down at him from the buildings and he always turned around and waved, but he didn’t that day. He got in his car, had a heart attack or something, and died. He was buried on Christmas Eve. I had no brothers and sisters, so I was all by myself. It really changes you. For the rest of your life you’re always expecting something bad to happen.

I had a ham-and-cheese sandwich last night. It was the best sandwich I ever had. Just wonderful. White bread, American cheese, ham, tomato, mustard. Mary made it. Mary says I’ll tell you virtually every meal I eat is the best I’ve ever had. She’s right.

I’ve heard a lot of comedians were young when their parents divorced, or when a parent died or was killed. It forces you to have a sense of humor.

One of the great things about kids is, they haven’t heard a lot of the old jokes. You can get away with the corny ones.

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2 thoughts on “The Full and Amazing Career of Fred Willard, Part 1

  1. I knew of Fred Willard and recognized him immediately. However, I know him only from the last 10-15 years of his acting. I remember him in Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family, and Anchorman among others. Like so many of your other blogs I learned a lot about who he was most of his life and all the amazing things he has done. He appeared in a lot of shows and movies I recognize but don’t remember him on (like Friends). He is a very recognizable person and I am impressed he has been able to keep his career going all these years!

    I get very jealous of anyone who is the voice of anything for a commercial/product. Seems like a nice gig as he himself said in the advice section towards the end.

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    • I remember Fernwood tonight but not much about it. I mostly remember him from his late night show appearances. I do like him on Modern Family. He looks like he really could be Phil’s dad. It seems like show business can be a grueling and unpredictable career, so I am always amazed at people who do it so well for so long and with such variety. I think there must be a link to the fact that all the people I’ve looked at so far — Shelly Fabares, Barbara Eden, Betty White, and Fred Willard — all seem much younger than most people their age. In two weeks we are going to look at another male actor.

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