Fred Willard, the prolific and beloved comic actor and master of the mockumentary genre who stood out in ensemble comedies like Best in Show, For Your Consideration and This Is Spinal Tap, died Friday at the age of 86.
Willard’s rep Glenn Schwartz confirmed his death to Rolling Stone, adding that the cause of death was natural causes. Willard’s daughter Hope Mulbarger said in a statement, “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.”
Jamie Lee Curtis, wife of Willard’s longtime director Christopher Guest, first shared news of the actor’s death. “How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard’s gifts,” Curtis tweeted. “He is with his missed Mary now. Thanks for the deep belly laughs Mr. Willard.” Willard’s wife of 40 years, Mary, died in 2018.
“A four-time Emmy nominee radiated a unique charm that established him as one of our generation’s most gifted comic actors,” Willard’s rep wrote in a tribute. “A master of sketch comedy, Fred was most heralded for his quick wit and improvisational expertise, which he demonstrated in hundreds of appearances on stage, on the big screen, and on a wide range of television shows.”
Willard is best known for his work in Guest’s comedies — Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, For Your Consideration and A Mighty Wind — as well as scene-stealing moments in This Is Spinal Tap, Anchorman, Austin Powers and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
“What a deep and unabiding loss,” Ed Begley Jr., who appeared with Willard in six Guest films, said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Having spent countless hours onstage, on camera and in the home of this friend and genius, I won’t adjust to this loss any time soon. See you on the back lot, Fred. Sorry for all the jokes I stole.”
“Whenever Fred was improvising on set, we’d crowd around the monitors to watch and squeeze each other to hold in our laughter,” Parker Posey, who starred with Willard in five Guest movies, said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Acting with someone so brilliantly funny was exhilarating and we all revered and loved him.”
A veteran of the stage and sketch comedy, the Shaker Heights, Ohio-born Willard made his big-screen debut in a little-seen 1967 film titled Teenage Mother. After a decade of bit parts, Willard landed a role on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman spinoff Fernwood 2 Night in 1977 as announcer Jerry Hubbard to Martin Mull’s Barth Gimble.
“Fred Willard was truly one of a kind,” Mull said in a statement. “He, like no other, could literally take my breath away with his spontaneous originality. I have often said that acting with Fred is like following someone who refuses to use their turn-signals. Always a glorious adventure. He’s irreplaceable and I will miss the great warmth and kindness of his friendship.”
Willard’s work with Guest first began in 1984 when the two appeared onscreen together in Rob Reiner’s groundbreaking mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap in a scene where Willard’s Air Force lieutenant gives Spinal Tap, including Guest’s Nigel Tufnel, a tour of the military base. “Just about the funniest human ever to walk the planet,” This Is Spinal Tap co-star Harry Shearer tweeted. “An amazing talent, in telekinetic contact with the very wellspring of comedy.” Guest would later cast Willard in prominent roles in five mockumentaries he helmed, most recently 2016’s Mascots.
“Fred was the kindest, gentlest funniest man I’ve ever worked with,” Willard’s frequent co-star Bob Balaban said in a statement. “His wit knew no bounds. He didn’t do jokes. He made ‘ordinary’ funny and every word I ever heard him utter on- or off-camera was always unsparingly true.”
With hundreds of credits over an acting career that spanned over 50 years, Willard built a reputation where he could pop up in any setting — sitcoms (New Girl, Community, Modern Family), cartoons, late-night TV, offbeat comedies (Tim & Eric, Comedy Bang! Bang!, I Think You Should Leave), reality television (The Bachelor and The Bachelorette), game shows, commercials, even soap operas (an Emmy-nominated turn on The Bold and the Beautiful) — and it was not out of character.
“You will always be a true original and I am so honored that our lives intersected. No one will ever come close to replacing your genius,” Willard’s Modern Family co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson tweeted.
Willard will appear posthumously in the upcoming Netflix satirical series Space Force; a testament to his enormous filmography, Willard previously starred in an unrelated 1978 TV movie also titled Space Force, which he lampooned in a 2019 Jimmy Kimmel Live sketch. Kimmel tweeted Saturday, “There was no man sweeter or funnier. We were so lucky to know Fred Willard and will miss his many visits.” Willard was a beloved guest on late-night; in addition to his many Kimmel cameos, a compilation of Willard’s frequent visits to David Letterman’s shows runs for nearly three hours.
“Fred donated a great deal of his time to charitable endeavors,” his rep added. “For his work with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, City of Hope, and Actors and Others for Animals, he received a commendation from the City of Los Angeles, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised him for ‘outstanding humanitarian and philanthropic work.’”
“Fred Willard was the funniest person that I’ve ever worked with,” Steve Carell, Willard’s cast mate in Anchorman and Space Force, tweeted Saturday. “He was a sweet, wonderful man.”
I’m 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.
— Michael McKean (@MJMcKean) May 16, 2020
Fred Willard could not have been funnier. He was pure joy. And the sweetest person you could ever meet. https://t.co/JoLy6PVd9d
— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) May 16, 2020