Ty Burrell pays tribute to Fred Willard, the comedy legend who 'defied gravity'
Where there was a Willard, there was a way to find new laughs. That mild-mannered Midwestern guy was a spicy master of quirk and surprise, right up until his death in May at the age of 86. Fred Willard broke through in the Rob Reiner mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, and later swiping scenes in such Christopher Guest mockumentaries as Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind. The Anchorman alum was a fixture of funny on TV, too, first with Fernwood 2 Night/America 2 Night, and then in a flurry of guest spots on sitcoms including The Golden Girls, Mad About You, Roseanne, Undeclared, Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family, and Review.
“He, like no other, could literally take my breath away with his spontaneous originality,” said Fernwood co-star Martin Mull in a statement after Willard passed away. “I have often said that acting with Fred is like following someone who refuses to use their turn-signals.” That's an ideal way to sum up the unpredictable delight that was Fred Willard. Below, a man who was honored to ride shotgun with Willard on Back To You and Modern Family, Ty Burrell, recounts the joy and awe of working with one of his biggest influences. (More celebrities pay tribute to the stars we lost in 2020 over here.)
"The first thing I remember about Fred was the scene in Spinal Tap when he's showing the band around and talking about needing to get his haircut: 'Better not get too close to you or they’ll think I’m part of the band.' You can see Christopher Guest ducking to laugh. I've heard that Christopher Guest is legendary for not breaking. And like most people, I started to notice Fred through Christopher Guest’s films. I was just struck that this guy who was playing as plain a character as you could, could be making it that funny.
Little by little, he started to have a real impact on the way I was doing bits with friends. His ability to be earnest and oblivious but so on his toes and not come across as dumb — it almost defies gravity. That was a miracle to watch. And when I started to get more opportunities to do comedy, he was a huge influence on me. What struck me most when I first met Fred at a table read for Back to You was how quiet he was. He seemed to be such a straightforward, Midwestern guy. I expected him to be more, I don't know, bombastic. Or more of a 'comedian.' But when he was performing, there would be these explosions of comedy that totally belied his perfectly parted hair and his straight-down-the-middle demeanor. The comedy that was in him came in such a vanilla package, it would slap you in the face. There was no indication of all the things that I'd seen him do on film or all the things that were waiting for me in his performance — he'd just sneak attack and knock me over with some hilarious, completely unexpected idea.
On Back To You, I got to see firsthand how all of the stuff that he was doing was not a fluke. He wasn't just somebody who came by that naturally; he was a super hard worker. I had the dressing room above him, and I could hear him going over his lines over and over and over again before taping. I also heard him practicing his alternate jokes; he made those alts look so easy in those moments by improvising certain things. He was a great improviser, but he also spent time to think about other jokes that he could plug in when the other jokes already had their moment in front of the audience. I learned a ton from him. You always want to be spontaneous. Go into every scene as prepared as possible, but also be prepared with other jokes that might take the scene in a different direction. That really all came from Fred.
Then I got to work with him on Modern Family for all that time. I loved when I knew I was going to work with Fred, because a day with Fred meant somebody who was always prepared, somebody who was always going to bring extra stuff to the table, somebody who never added drama off-screen. He was just a completely low-maintenance person and somebody who off-screen was really kind and funny. Fred didn't create an earnest oblivious character — that has existed for forever — but he perfected it, in my opinion. I just don't think that Phil Dunphy could exist without Fred, because Fred was able to navigate being oblivious, but not be dumb. His characters were all still capable. And that's really where Fred did something miraculous.
We would get the scene down, and he was always just incredibly funny in all those takes. But to Martin Mull's point, usually after about the third take, he would start to plug in his alts, but he would never tell you they were coming. Ever. And they were always so good. The percentage of high-quality material was always so high. And it was so thrilling. He would always catch you by surprise. I break pretty easily, so I’d usually have to do them again, but he had sneak attacks for every scene. I learned over the years how valuable that was — not just for the show, but there's also a certain amount of morale on set when you've been working on a scene for a couple hours and it can lose its life. And when Fred came in after 15 takes with something totally new and genuinely hilarious, it would bring the whole scene back to life. I really tried to emulate that.
I am incredibly grateful that I had the chance to say farewell to him on screen — and off — during the final season. There are so few people we really get to say goodbye to. The writers really did a good job of making it poignant without it being too saccharine. After filming the episode, I tried my best to explain to him what he meant to me, and how much he had influenced me. I fumbled over it for a while. He was very quiet and took it all in and just said, 'Thanks.' And that was it. And then he said, 'I'll see you on the next one.' The reason that moment was so poignant was that he knew his time was limited, and the only real way for him to say goodbye was to say, 'I'll see you on the next one.' That's the way he always thought. He said it with a wink, and he knew that that wasn't the case. There's something about Fred that is beautifully unknowable because he was in his way also a stoic guy, so his words really meant something. The economy of that goodbye and the poignancy of him saying that — we both knew we weren't going to be working together again — I think he heard me and he was very kindly letting me stumble over my words. I think 'I'll see you on the next one,' was Fred's version of, 'I love you.' And my stumbling was my version of 'I love you, Fred.' I love him, and I miss him."
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