The ''Best in Show'' scene stealer plays the toupeed one in ''When Billie Beat Bobby''

By Bruce Fretts
Updated April 17, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Fred Willard: Doan Gregory

Fred Willard is rapidly cornering the thespian market on loudmouthed sportscasters. The comedian, who had audiences howling as dumb jock kennel club commentator Buck Laughlin in last year’s improv flick ”Best in Show,” channels the toupeed spirit of Howard Cosell in the ABC movie ”When Billie Beat Bobby” (about the 1973 Billie Jean King ? Bobby Riggs tennis match) on April 16. EW lobbed questions at the 61 year old actor, previously best known as Martin Mull’s dim sidekick in the ’70s talk show parody ”Fernwood 2-Night,” and found him to be a good sport.

What was your reaction when they asked you to play Cosell?
When it was first offered, I said, ”I can’t do Howard Cosell. You’ve got to get an impersonator.” They said, ”No, we want you.” So I said, ”The hell with it, everyone can do Howard Cosell.”

Did you improvise a lot of Cosell’s lines?
They sent me the script, and they had taken the transcription right from the television special. Then two days before I did it, they called and said they heard from the Howard Cosell estate that we’re going to have to pay them if we use his lines, so I had to paraphrase. I guess he’s the only one who copyrighted his own inane lines.

Did you ever meet Cosell?
I did ”Battle of the Network Stars” with him [in 1981], and by that time he had become a cartoon of himself. We had my daughter and a few of her friends with us, and one asked Cosell for an autograph. He said, ”Darling, if I give you an autograph, I’ll have to sign everybody’s.” But there was nobody else around.

How did you come up with ”Best in Show”’s Buck Laughlin?
The first script they sent was a 15 page treatment, and I said, ”I don’t see my character in here.” They said, ”Oh, that’s a mistake. We’ll send out a new one.” All it said was ”Buck Laughlin and his partner, Trevor Beckwith, comment on the dogs.” They sent me the tape of the Westminster Dog Show and said, ”Joe Garagiola is the host, and he hasn’t taken the trouble to learn anything about dogs. Model yourself after that.” I took it from there and raised it up a level.

How’d you get so good at playing dumb?
Everyone has a little trapdoor in their mind where you go to say something and then you think no, you shouldn’t say this. I just open that door. I find that in private life, I say a lot of things very seriously, and people laugh because it comes out funny. I think I got that from my grandmother and my mother, who used to say very stupid things when I was a kid.

Are you shocked by all the acclaim you’ve received recently?
It’s all been a surprise. I was runner up with the New York Film Critics [Circle] for ”Best in Show.” With the Boston [Society of] Film Critics, I was voted Best Supporting Actor, and the runner up was Albert Finney. When my wife told me that, I laughed for 10 minutes.