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Fred Willard (1933–2020), comic actor who starred in “Best in Show”

by John Maxwell

Fred Willard was a comic actor beloved for roles in films including “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind,” and “This Is Spinal Tap.” During his long career he also appeared in several TV shows, including “Fernwood 2 Night,” “Real People,” “Roseanne,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and “Modern Family.” His final recurring role was as Steve Carell’s father in the upcoming Netflix series “Space Force.”

Master of the fake documentary

Willard’s handsome everyman quality and impeccable improvisational skills were particularly suited to the “mockumentary” style of comic fake documentaries. He appeared in director Rob Reiner’s ode to heavy metal excess, “This is Spinal Tap” (1984), as a military officer showing the band around a hangar where they would be performing before baffling them with the concept of 24-hour military time. He drew upon his background in military school and service in the U.S. Army to inform his brief but memorable role.

Perhaps the best showcase for his oddball improvised patter was in a series of mockumentaries directed by Christopher Guest. In “Waiting for Guffman” (1996) he played half of a pair of Missouri travel agents and local community theater actors who thought they were one big performance away from Broadway.


In “Best in Show” (2000) he played a clueless dog show commentator.

And in “A Mighty Wind” (2003) he played an obnoxious former sitcom star who now manages a folk group.

Willard on the best part of improvisation:

“He said, ‘it’s going to be completely improvised, there’s no script.’ My first thought was, ‘gee, that’s great!’ Because the toughest part about being in a movie is learning the lines,” he recalled from his first meeting with Christopher Guest about the movie “Waiting for Guffman” in a 2017 interview with the Television Academy.

What others said about him

Full obituary: Los Angeles Times

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