Fred Willard has passed away, but his legacy lives on through his numerous screen roles. He starred in the new Netflix show Space Force and also made us smile with his portrayals of oblivious dog-show commentator Buck Laughlin in Best in Show and Phil Dunphy on Modern Family. The actor was a frequent collaborator with mockumentary master Christopher Guest, appearing in Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Here are 5 of his most memorable films.
1. Fernwood Tonight (1977)
By the time this mockumentary about a small-town talk show premiered in 1977, Fred Willard had already logged some significant time in comedy troupes and on television shows. But Fernwood Tonight introduced him to a much larger audience. The gomovies film centers on host Barth Gimble and fractious sidekick Jerry Hubbard, who broadcast from the fictional town of Fernwood in Ohio.
The resulting scenes offer the most pure distillation of Willard’s trademark charm: that perfect combination of clueless overconfidence and limited intelligence. Whether in an improvised sketch on the proto-reality series Real People or in a cameo in This Is Spinal Tap or as a recurring character on Roseanne or Everybody Loves Raymond, he was always a welcome presence. His last scene in Fernwood Tonight, as the mayor of a small town, is a master class in understatement.
2. The Fernwood Files (1978)
Fred Willard, who died this week at age 86, was a master of the mockumentary genre. He starred in the ensemble comedies Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and For Your Consideration as well as the cult classics This Is Spinal Tap and Anchorman.
The Shaker Heights, Ohio native began his career in the theater and sketch comedy before gaining notice for his role on Fernwood Tonight and its follow-up, Fernwood 2 Night. The fake talk show spoofs were ahead of their time, with cheap sets and ingratiating host banter that made audiences howl.
Willard was a master of playing dimwitted characters. He was a delight to watch, as evidenced by his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show in which he played Phil Dunphy’s (Ty Burrell) father. It was a touching moment for everyone involved. He’ll be missed.
3. Best in Show (1999)
Few actors had Fred Willard’s gift for playing lovable doofs, and his talents were well-suited to the mockumentary genre. He appeared in five films directed by Christopher Guest, including 2000’s Best in Show. Its setup of a dog show provides lots of fodder for comedy, but it’s Willard as color commentator Buck Laughlin that really makes this one tick.
The scene where he delivers a stream of foot-in-mouth comments to a British dog expert (Jim Piddock) is a gem, and his entire performance is a riot. It’s a showcase for his talent, and it’s a perfect example of what he brought to all of Guest’s movies. He’d appear in them all, including This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. He died in 2018. He was 86. He’s missed.
4. A Mighty Wind (2001)
Fred Willard is back as a fictional folk singer in Christopher Guest’s dead-on mockumentary. The satire skewers the earnest smugness of the genre, from Peter, Paul & Mary PBS reunion specials to Glenn Yarbrough’s warbling ballads.
As the maybe-insane manager of a large folk group, Willard shows off his impeccable timing and lovable doofiness to perfection. He’s a perfect foil to the equally funny Catherine O’Hara, his wife/stage partner.
A Mighty Wind is a more subtle and gentle take on its subject than Best in Show, but it’s a great showcase for Willard and the rest of the cast. His final scene, in which he explains the concept of space force to Jimmy Kimmel, is a fitting sendoff. His impersonation of Donald Trump in a recent Kimmel sketch is also spot-on. He’ll be missed. Rest in peace, Fred.
5. For Your Consideration (2006)
Fred Willard is best known for his work with mockumentary titan Christopher Guest, appearing in the films Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and This Is Spinal Tap. But he also lent his comic talents to a number of other movies and TV shows, including three appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live!
In For Your Consideration, Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy satirize what it takes for a movie to receive Academy Award consideration. But there’s more to it than that, as the film proves with its sly look at the movie industry’s foibles.
The ensemble cast is perfect, with scene stealers like Parker Posey (a young actress who might be on the rise), Catherine O’Hara (an aging actress) and Harry Shearer (a beleaguered producer). Willard, as always, delivers a delightfully dimwitted performance. He was such a master at playing dumb, it’s almost sad to watch him go.