Chatting with Fred Willard -- The ''Back to You'' actor reveals his thoughts on guest spots, getting recognized, and playing dumb

By Lynette Rice
Updated November 09, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

How did you get the role of Marsh McGinley, the hapless sports anchor on Fox’s Back to You? [The show’s co-creator] Steve Levitan wrote the role for me, which is very unusual. He sent over the script, but I didn’t read it for about a month because I was afraid I wouldn’t like my part. Turns out it was just the type I would have written for myself. I don’t think anything bothers Marsh. If something does, it’s a stupid little thing like being very puzzled over seeing a magician take an orange out of a box.

Levitan says the show feels like it’s already been on for years. It does! It’s very well-oiled. They have so many funny lines and funny situations. And the writers…if something doesn’t work, the next day it’s even funnier.

Is it true that it only takes around three hours to tape an episode? The industry norm is more like five-plus! I don’t know how they do it. They’ll do every scene twice and we’re out of there by 9 p.m. I did a guest spot on Friends once and they started taping at 7 p.m. At about one in the morning they said, ”Fred, come down and do your scene.” Half the audience had already gotten up and left!

You’ve made a great living out of playing dim-bulb characters. What’s your secret? I’ve always been fascinated with people who don’t have a worry in the world. My family, my mother — all of them had non sequiturs. Once, my mother went to see the film Best Foot Forward, and the next day, I asked what she saw and she said, ”Here We Go Backward.”

Do fans still approach you about your work on the ersatz talk show Fernwood 2-Night from 1977? People want to talk to me about Fernwood and [the 2000 mockumentary] Best in Show. I’m very flattered, but then I want to say, Well, I’ve done a few other things. But for a while it was just Fernwood 2-Night, so I thought, Well, I’ll just be remembered for that. Martin [Mull] and I still have a great relationship.

Is it true that you’ve appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno more than 90 times? It’s my favorite job! I go in, rehearse a skit once, and do it. I’ve got the cue cards there. If something bombs, they just cut it. I say goodbye, I go home and watch it that night. There are no notes afterwards, no torture.

You’ve done an incredible amount of guest-starring roles on TV shows like Laverne & Shirley and Friends during your 41-year career. Your manager — who happens to be your wife of 40 years, Mary — says there was one year when you worked every single week on a different show. Yeah, they don’t pay much. Being a guest star is like being the foreign exchange student. You’re worried you’re going to flub a line, and everyone’s gonna say, ”Why did we get this guy?” It’s much better being a series regular. You’re part of the family.

Who’s Afraid of Chris Guest?
Though Willard has appeared in four movies directed by Christopher Guest (most notably Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show), don’t assume the two are old chums. Willard admits to having a tough time relating to the painfully shy director. ”A friend saw Chris Guest in a deli once and wanted to tell him what a fan he was, but said it looked like Chris wanted to be left alone so he didn’t go up. I told him he made the right decision,” recalls Willard. ”But boy, is he a comedy genius. He’s got that wonderful black sense of humor. I would love to be close friends with him.”