Image Credit: Michael Desmond/ABC“I’ve found over the years that for some reason, people either are big fans and have to use me, or they don’t quite understand what I’m doing,” Fred Willard once told EW. Good news for those of us who love seeing the 70-year-old actor, best known as a member of Christopher Guest’s movie troupe, in action — it’s the former these days. He guest stars on ABC’s Castle tonight (ABC, 10 p.m. EST), returns to ABC’s Modern Family on April 28, and drops by NBC’s Chuck on May 3.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: On Castle, you play the sidekick to a murdered late night host (Tom Bergeron). It’s actually a more serious role than we’re used to seeing you in. Looking back at your career, have there been other serious roles you’ve wanted, didn’t get, and still think you’d have done a great job with?
FRED WILLARD: No… I did a show called Lois & Clark, it was about Superman, years ago. They wanted someone to play the president of the United States. The plot was the president got kidnapped by a group, and they made a clone of him who was very irresponsible and silly. And they said, “We know Fred can do that. We’re not sure he can play the president.” So, I insisted on them letting me come in and read, and I knew I was the only one in my category who could do both parts. And of course, I did it well.
You’re reprising your role of Phil’s father, Frank, on Modern Family. Frank shows up in an RV with a little four-legged friend?
Yes, yes, it’s his dog that his wife is allergic to, so he’s driven across country to give it to his son. So there’s some touching moments in that as well.
You worked with the creators of Modern Family and Ty Burrell on Fox’s Back to You. That’s what made them think of you? It’s such great casting.
I never think I’m old enough to play someone’s dad, even though I have a daughter of my own and a grandson. But yeah, Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd did Back to You and thought of me. And I guess Ty Burrell kept saying, “Gee, we should get Fred Willard on.”
The first time we saw Frank, it was just on a web camera. What will we learn about him now that’s actually visiting in-person?
He’s just kind of a silly character who loves corny jokes, but also has a serious side, a sentimental side.
Do you have scenes with Ed O’Neill this time?
I do. I did Married… With Children years ago with him, and he’s just the most marvelous guy you’d ever want to be with, just a regular blue-collar guy…. There’s a musical scene that’s done in a real club that’s just really wonderful, where Cam bulls his way into playing the drums [for Dylan’s band]. We’re part of the group watching and amazed at the, we’ll call it the drum solo. [Laughs] It’s a hysterical scene.
Any plans to return for future episodes?
The problem is, my character lives in Florida. When I left, I said, “I see the whole family going to Disney World in Florida.” “Hey! That’s a great idea!” As with most great ideas, I haven’t heard much more about that. But they did request a photo of me to put in the hallway [of Phil and Claire’s home]. So I haven’t been eliminated from the inner circle. They said, “You’re one of the family now, so we need a photograph.” I don’t know if you get paid for that, but there’s my picture.
And what will you be playing on Chuck?
That was an interesting one, because I play a part I’d always thought I was right for — a spy. I’m with Swoosie Kurtz on that, we’re a bickering spy couple, kind of like Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers played [on Hart to Hart], and we’re showing the ropes to the young Chuck and his partner. And it’s like a real did we double-cross them or did we triple-cross them? That was a lot of fun.
I read that you’re being honored April 19 at The Theatre School at DePaul University’s 2010 Awards for Excellence in the Arts.
Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it? I’ll find out what that’s about. It’ll be a nice trip to Chicago, and I love Chicago. I spent a year at Second City there. And I’ll think of something intelligent to say.
I was going to ask if you’d prepare a speech or trust your improv skills?
I usually like to prepare a speech, and then when you get there, a lot of times things change. Someone will say something that you already planned to say, things pop up. I assume they don’t expect too long a talk from me. Ben Vereen is another honoree. I was mentioned in a Broadway theater column, so I said, “That’s great. I’m up there with the Broadway people.”
Last question: Always have to ask if there’s anything new on the horizon with Christopher Guest?
Not that I know of. Although I did hear a rumor that Christopher and Eugene Levy might be planning a movie right now. I have plenty of ideas for ’em, but I find that Chris likes to go with his own ideas. And his ideas are usually very good, so I just sit back and hope that he has one and that he calls me.
Watch: Christopher Guest describes the moment he knew Fred Willard was “off”