Fred Willard was an actor, a comedian, an improv genius and a gentle soul. The performer, who died May 15 of natural causes at the age of 86, was beloved in the creative community because he offered the rarest commodity in showbiz.
“He was a guarantee,” says Phil Rosenthal, creator and showrunner of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which featured Willard in a recurring role in its later seasons.
“With Fred Willard, when his face popped up in a show or a movie, you suddenly got a little jolt of ‘This is going to be funny,’” Rosenthal says. “There are way more famous comedians who can carry movies, but you can’t always guarantee that they’re going to be funny. Fred was a guarantee.”
Willard was known for playing dimwitted characters and straitlaced, average guys who would say and do unexpectedly outrageous things.
A graduate of Virginia Military Institute and an Army veteran, Willard got his start with improv troupes including Second City and Ace Trucking Company. That early stage training served him well throughout his career. But there was still something bordering on the supernatural about Willard’s gift of timing and his instinct for where to find the truest laughs in any situation.
“What he had cannot be taught,” says Martin Mull, a longtime friend and frequent on-screen partner. The two first met in 1977 on the set of “Fernwood 2 Night,” a late-night talk-show spoof produced by Norman Lear as a spinoff of his soap opera satire “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Willard played the doltish, Ed McMahon-esque sidekick Jerry Hubbard to Mull’s noxious host Barth Gimble.
With Willard, Mull had a kind of comedic “telepathy” that was instantaneous and allowed them to go off script frequently. Willard’s skill and work ethic on the nightly series (and its 1978 iteration, “America 2-Night”) forced Mull to up his game.
“Working with him could be terrifying,” Mull says. “You’d be thinking, ‘How am I going to keep up?’”
Mull and Willard later collaborated on the HBO comedy miniseries “The History of White People in America,” and they appeared together as a gay couple for three seasons on ABC’s “Roseanne.” The friendship they developed on “Fernwood” was enduring.
“Whenever he’d get a job, he’d ask for me [to be cast], and when I’d get a job I’d ask for him,” Mull says. “He was that way with me from day one. After he got successful, he didn’t change a whit. He was always Fred.”
Rosenthal and Mull also remember Willard as a kind and generous person who was devoted to his wife of 50 years, playwright Mary Willard, and their daughter, Hope. Mary Willard died in 2018. The loss was particularly hard on Fred at a time when his health was declining.
“They broke the mold with both of those two,” Mull says.
For years, Rosenthal and his wife, actor Monica Horan, had the Willards among their guests for Sunday-night movie screenings at their home.
“They were so much in love,” Rosenthal says. “He was just the nicest, sweetest, gentlest soul.”