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Fred Willard: Anchorman, This Is Spinal Tap and Modern Family actor dies aged 86

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Celebrated comic actor Fred Willard has died at the age of 86.

The four-time Emmy Award nominee passed away on Friday night after a career spanning more than five decades, featuring roles in genre-defining comedy hits on both the big and small screen.

The cause of his death has not been released.

His daughter, Hope Mulbarger, said he “kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end”, adding: “We loved him so very much. We will miss him forever.”

Willard with daughter Hope in September 2019
Image:
Willard with daughter Hope in September 2019

Willard was known for appearing in 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, following the exploits of a fictional British heavy metal band, and then for a series of collaborations with director Christopher Guest.

Among them were 1996’s Waiting For Guffman, for which Willard was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for funniest supporting actor and an American Comedy Award.

Guest also directed Willard in For Your Consideration, Best In Show and A Mighty Wind.

Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who was married to Guest, tweeted: “How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard’s gifts.

“Thanks for all the belly laughs”.

Willard in 2003's A Mighty Wind
Image:
Willard in 2003’s A Mighty Wind

Willard stayed relevant into the 21st century thanks to films like 2004 newsroom comedy Anchorman and its sequel, while several of his Emmy nominations arrived between 2003 and 2005 for sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.

His previous nomination came for talk show What’s Hot, What’s Not, which aired from 1985 to 1986.

Another Emmy nomination came for a guest role in Modern Family, and his comedy chops also became familiar to younger audiences thanks to vocals in animated films like 2006’s Monster House and Pixar’s WALL-E.

Willard was a frequent visitor to US chat show Jimmy Kimmel Live!, spoofing current affairs by portraying characters including the ghosts of George Washington and President Donald Trump’s father Fred.

Following news of his death, Kimmel tweeted a clip of what turned out to be his final appearance on the show:

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

Willard opposite Will Ferrell in Anchorman
Image:
Willard opposite Will Ferrell in Anchorman

Tributes have flooded in from other stars who worked with Willard, including actor and comedian Steve Martin, who appeared with him in 1987 romcom Roxanne.

He tweeted: “RIP, Fred. You were always my comic hero. I was thrilled to work with you in Roxanne.”

Michael McKean, who starred with Willard in This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, said: “I am at a loss for words, a state Fred Willard never found himself in.

“My friend for 40+ years, a great comic actor who had no competition because there was only one of him.

“We were all so lucky. Goodbye, Fred.”

Harry Shearer, also of This Is Spinal Tap, said: “Just about the funniest human ever to walk the planet.

“An amazing talent, in telekinetic contact with the very wellspring of comedy.”

Willard as Frank Dunphy in the latest season of Modern Family
Image:
Willard as Frank Dunphy in the latest season of Modern Family

Steve Carell, who starred in both Anchorman films, tweeted: “Fred Willard was the funniest person that I have ever worked with. He was a sweet, wonderful man.”

Carell also stars in what stands to be Willard’s final TV series – the Netflix comedy Space Force, which is due to premiere on the streaming service on 29 May.

The show centres on a group tasked with establishing the new US military service of the same name.

Dave Thomas, Ed Asner, Fred Willard and Robert Klein at the Vic Theater in Chicago in 1979
Image:
Dave Thomas, Ed Asner, Fred Willard and Robert Klein at the Vic Theater in Chicago in 1979

Willard, whose entertainment career began on the stage in the 1950s, had posted on Twitter for what turned out to be the final time to mourn the death of fellow comedy legend Jerry Stiller less than a week ago.

Reacting to the Seinfeld star’s death, Willard said: “A bad time! Just getting over the loss of Little Richard, and now I learn my old friend Jerry Stiller has passed away. He was a good friend and a very funny man.”

He added: “I met him in the 60s when we played in the same clubs in The Village as he and Anne Meara.

“Unfortunately for us, they were much funnier! We couldn’t be jealous, so we became good friends instead.”

Fred Willard performs onstage in Chicago in 1978
Image:
Fred Willard performs on stage in Chicago in 1978

Away from the stage and screen, Willard had a brush with the law in 2012 when he was arrested on suspicion of committing a lewd act at an adult theatre in Hollywood.

He called the arrest “very embarrassing” but denied any wrongdoing.

Addressing the incident during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2012, he said: “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?’.”

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