Legendary actor, writer, and comedian Fred Willard died on Friday at the age of 86.
He may be best known to 2020 audiences for his role on Modern Family, where he played Phil’s dad Frank. But Willard has a long history in Hollywood, including a lengthy and creatively productive relationship with mockumentary master Christopher Guest.
Willard’s career started in the New York City comedy scene of the 1950s, where he first made a name for himself as one half of a comedy duo alongside Vic Grecco. He later performed with Second City in Chicago and co-founded the improv comedy troupe, Ace Trucking Company, which logged numerous appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Willard’s profile had only grown by the end of the ’70s, when a role on the comedy series Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman landed him a starring role (alongside Martin Mull) on the spin-off Fernwood 2 Night, and a couple others that followed.
All of which is to say that Willard was already a well-known name among comedy lovers by the time he made his first big splash in the Rob Reiner-directed mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, which was co-written by Guest. He then went on to appear in Guest’s greatest subsequent hits, including the dog show farce Best in Show; the folk music riff on Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind; and the homespun local theater send-up, Waiting for Guffman (among others).
Willard’s film and TV credits in general capture an unimaginably wide cross-section of entertainment from the past 60 years. He had roles in the first Austin Powers, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, and Anchorman. He lent his voice to WALL-E. On TV, his credits include appearances on The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, Married… With Children, Family Matters, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Mad About You, The Simpsons, and Modern Family (among many others).
Willard kept on working right up to the end. He will next appear in a recurring role on Netflix’s upcoming series Space Force, from Steve Carell and Greg Daniels (of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame).
A large community of friends, fans, and colleagues stepped up swiftly to pay tribute to Willard on social media in the hours after his death, attributed to natural causes, was confirmed.
Fred Willard was the funniest person that I’ve ever worked with. He was a sweet, wonderful man.
— Steve Carell (@SteveCarell) May 16, 2020
Just learned of Fred Willard’s passing. Just about the funniest human ever to walk the planet. An amazing talent, in telekinetic contact with the very wellspring of comedy.
— Harry Shearer (@theharryshearer) May 16, 2020
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
Gutted. His immense talent and kindness will never be forgotten. We love you Fred Willard. Thank you for the decades of laughter.
— christina applegate (@1capplegate) May 16, 2020
One of my favorite lines in a movie ever was delivered by Fred Willard in BEST IN SHOW, after a naughty dog went after the judge: “He went after her like she was made of ham.” This man was so brilliant and he elevated the flicks and TV shows in which he popped up. RIP, Funny Man! https://t.co/jEmDS0T9n8
— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) May 16, 2020
RIP Fred Willard ..you were incomparable
— Henry Winkler (@hwinkler4real) May 16, 2020