This interview originally ran on April 8, 2011. It’s being republished following Willard’s death at age 86 on May 15, 2020.
Once you start looking for Fred Willard, you will see him everywhere. Just at this moment in time, the genial actor is a recurring sketch comedian on The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live; a guest star on three sitcoms and one legal drama; a cast member of Funny or Die Presents and Tom Hanks’s web series “The 3 Minute Talk Show”; and the pitchman for TurboTax. He’ll soon be reprising his Emmy-nominated role as Phil Dunphy’s father on Modern Family, and on Sunday night, he stars in an ABC Family time-travel romance called my My Future Boyfriend (“I hate the title,” he says, “but it’s a fascinating story”). And through it all, he maintains largely the same reliably hilarious persona of the grinning, genial, clueless boob, a kind of role you can find all over his endless résumé of movies, TV spots, and hosting gigs starting in the late sixties. We recently spoke with Willard about his long career, his Christopher Guest–fueled resurgence, and even got Mr. Clean to say “fuck.” And Willardphiles can take heart: He emerges in this largely unedited transcript as exactly the Fred Willard that you would hope he’d be.
Your résumé is so enormous, I don’t even know where to start.
I’ve been in a lot of shows, I will say that. Every once in a while I’ll look at a tape of something I’ve done and I won’t even remember having done it. I’m trying to think what I saw the other day — oh, a sketch on the Jay Leno show. I did over 90 of them, and I just happened to have one on my TiVo, and I looked at it and I said, “I have no memory of the character or any of the jokes.” So I could watch it objectively and say, “Oh, this is funny.”
You’ve been doing The Tonight Show since Johnny Carson. What was your relationship like with him?
He had nothing to do with most of the acts. It would never be a situation of Johnny stopping by the dressing room to say, “Hi, how are you guys doing?” Jay Leno is completely different. Jay will come to the dressing room before the show. Once I did a bit on the show and during a commercial break, he came running into the dressing room to tell me how much he liked it.
It’s interesting to hear that Leno is so appreciative, since there’s so much negativity about him in the media.
A lot of people tend not to like Jay for some reason. I don’t know why. I’ve known him for years before he had the Tonight Show, and I’ve found him to be just a very funny man, a very no-nonsense guy. I can’t say he’s a good friend, because if we passed each other, he’d probably put his arm around me and say “Hey, how are you doin’, Fred?” but he would never call and say, “Let’s go out for a beer.”
But he would get off his motorcycle for you.
He would stop the motorcycle and lean on it for a minute.
But you also did Ed Sullivan, The Smothers Brothers — a lot of those comedy-variety talk shows over the years.
I’m just trying to think if I did The Smothers Brothers show. I think I did! That sounds very familiar. (Note: Fred actually did a Smothers Brothers special in the eighties.)
Regardless, you’ve been doing this for decades. How has it changed? In some ways, it’s almost a throwback sort of format, since you don’t get a lot of variety shows on TV these days.
It’s true, but there’s a lot more shows now. Way back when I started, there were just a very limited number of shows. There was Ed Sullivan, there was the Tonight Show, Mike Douglas, and Merv Griffin. But now I’ve done something on Tosh.0. I didn’t even know what the heck it was. They had me do a couple of sketches, and now I’ve just recently started watching it and saying, “Hey, this is pretty good.”
So is it normal for you to take a job and not really know what to expect?
Well — if an offer comes in, I’ll always say, “It sounds great, just send me a script.” If I read it through and I kind of like the part, I’ll usually try to do it. It’s really difficult for an actor to turn something down.
What do you turn down?
I’ve turned down a couple of scripts that looked like they’d involve a lot of complicated shooting, particularly nighttime shooting. Also, if a script is extremely dirty, R-rated — if it’s funny and there’s a reason for it, I think it’s great and I would watch it, but I have to think twice [about doing it], because I’ve got a grandson now.
You do have kind of a reputation as a family-friendly comedian.
Well I prefer that, because I think to do something that’s kind of G- or PG-rated, it takes much more talent — and I’m talking from a writer’s point of view — to make a statement or hold the audience’s interest. It’s much more difficult to do.
What was your feeling about the pioneering foul-mouthed comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor?
Now, Lenny Bruce I was a huge fan of, because he had something to say. I was just on an airplane and watched a Tracy Morgan special — it was one of the most X-rated things I’ve ever seen but so spectacularly funny. I mean, I couldn’t even tell my wife some of the things he did! But I enjoyed it. And there’s another comic named Dave Attell who gets very graphic and very dirty but he’s very, very funny. I was a huge fan of Sam Kinison. But others I’ll watch and it’s, you know, “a guy walked across the fuckin’ street and a fucking car drove by and the fucking horn was” — and see, without the cursing, there wouldn’t be much of an act.
It’s funny to hear you say the word “fuck”!
Yeah, I know! [Cracks up.] Every once in a while, I’ll roll one off when I think, Jee, this sounds like an easy way to get a good laugh. But you’ve gotta just be aware of that. It’s like being a baseball player: They banned the spitball. And you can scuff up the ball and throw a spitball; it’s not fair, but it’s easy to get men out. So that’s the way I look at it.
Have you taken any roles that went right up to that line, where you thought, this is kind of risky?
Well, the last Jimmy Kimmel thing I did — they did a brief sketch, and the premise was that Oprah Winfrey is giving a lot of people their own show now, and she’s giving Fred Willard a show that’s just Fred Willard counting Oprah’s shoes. So they had what looked like a beautiful mansion behind me, and I was counting shoes. “12,120, 12,121” — and then they said, “Okay, maybe you lose count and you start cursing.” So I did. I said. “Goddamn son of a bitch fucking shit!” Which they bleeped, of course. But as I did that, I said, “This is going to get a big response, because people don’t expect me to curse.” And it did.
You’ve done a few indies in the past couple years, but you’ve done very few films that weren’t comedies. The big exception seems to be Salem’s Lot.
Yeah, the director was Tobe Hooper, who directed one of my favorite horror films, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And I got a call to be in this movie, Salem’s Lot. I’d read the book. And I got to the set, and I met Tobe Hooper, and he was the nicest man, just a very pleasant, quiet man with a little beard. I had no idea why he asked me to be in the movie — it was an out-and-out horror film; it had vampires.
I played a real-estate salesman, and at one point, I’m supposed to leave my office and go across the street to talk to James Mason, who’d moved into the big mansion with what looked like caskets. And he said, “Okay, you run across the street with whatever little funny walk you’ve come up with.” And I thought, Ohhh, he wants a funny walk. He wants me to be funny. So that made sense.
And one day my wife was on the set visiting me, and one of the producers was talking to me and said, “You know how we thought of you for this movie?” And I said no. And he said, “You were in St. Martins one morning.” And I didn’t know what St. Martins was. And it’s a Catholic church. Now, my wife is Catholic, and I guess the producer is Catholic. He said, you were sitting in the congregation, and the sun came through the window and it shined down on you and we said, “That’s Fred Willard! We should use him in our movie.” And I said to my wife, “My God, I should have been going to synagogues for years!”
What was James Mason like?
Very quiet, very pleasant. I remember there was a scene — we were standing on the street and he was up on the porch of his house. And they filmed him doing a scene, and they said, okay, cut. And for a second, I had an urge to run up to the porch and pretend I was giving him some acting notes. And I look back on that and I say, “I think it’s better that I didn’t do that.” It might have been funny if he’d played along with it, but if he hadn’t, I would have felt like an ass. But I’d forgotten I was in the movie with him till I saw some scenes from it about a year ago. I said, “Oh my god! And I had a scene, just me and James Mason!”
Given that you’ve been in the business for so long, who do you think of as your contemporaries? Do you feel you have a fraternity with other comedians?
Yes — and unfortunately, when a role comes up and they call me about it, I usually think of one of them and say, “Oh, they’d be better at this then I would.” My friend Martin Mull, who I was on the show Fernwood 2 Night with — I always think, Gosh, I hope they don’t think of him. Michael McKean takes a lot of roles away from me, and every time I see that he’s in a play or something, I think, Oh great, he’s busy, now they won’t use him. ‘Cause he’s a wonderful actor, and again, I think, much better than I am. And then a lot of people I’ve worked with, like — well, Christopher Guest doesn’t seem to want to do much acting. But Eugene Levy is very funny and I just think he’s wonderful. All the other actors I can think of — where the hell are they? Why aren’t they doing more? [Laughs.]
Oh, Jeffrey Tambor, who’s a very funny man. He just got signed to do La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway to replace Kelsey Grammer, and then I read that he left the cast because he had some physical problem or something, and I have a feeling it’s because he found out how much work it is to do a Broadway show. And my first two thoughts were, Oh, what a shame, that’s too bad, and Oh, hell, now he’s back out here and he’s going to take a job away from me. You know, I never have any pride if my agent calls and says, “Oh, they wanted this guy, and then that guy, but they’re not available, so now they want to know if you want to do it.” I’m pleased as I can be, ‘cause it makes up for all the things that you should have done and you couldn’t.
Is there any particular project that you’re sad to have not done?
Remember the movie Airplane!? I had just done a movie called How to Beat the High Cost of Living and it didn’t get a good review. And the same people sent me the script for Airplane!, for the Robert Hays part. I read it, and there were a lot of plays on words, and I said, “I don’t like this kind of comedy.” So I turned it down, and then they came back and said, “We really want you for this part.” Now, meanwhile, I was doing a show called Real People, and I remember I was sitting in a hotel room in Chicago talking to my agent, and I said, “You know, it will conflict with the TV show, and I don’t really get the movie.” And instead of what he should have said — “Fred, it’s a lead in a movie, do it!” — he said, “Fred, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.” I said, “Yeah, I’d feel better if it went away.” So it did go away.
Later, I was doing the voice looping for a movie called First Family, and the director Buck Henry walked in and said, well, I just saw a screening of the biggest hit this summer. And I said, oh, what’s that? And he said, it’s called Airplane!. And I went, uh-oh, I made a mistake. [Laughs.] So Robert Hays did it, and I didn’t, and every time something about it comes on the TV, I say to my wife, geez, I probably should have done that. And she says, Fred, if you had done it, it might not have been that successful. [Laughs.]
Subsequently to that, I was doing a series called DC Follies [which starred him and a menagerie of puppets]. Oh, I loved that show! And Leslie Nielsen was on; he was a guest star. And I said, “Leslie, I’ll keep saying things to you like, ‘Surely, you think this is fun!’ or ‘Surely, you won’t do that!’” And he played along with it, and I thought it was a funny idea that I’d be like a cheap comic trying to have him say, “And don’t call me Shirley.”
Tell me about being the only non-puppet character on DC Follies.
We had so much fun on that show. The work was easy; there were cue cards. They made life-size puppets that were just phenomenal. The producers always forgot to get guest stars. And when they’d get them, we got Mike Tyson, Leslie Nielsen; we got Freddy Krueger, Steve Allen — they could get anyone they wanted to. I mean, you call anyone and say, come in on a Wednesday afternoon for an hour and work with life-size puppets — I think we could have gotten Marlon Brando if they could have gotten a hold of him. The producers kind of messed up; I won’t go into what happened — but it’s a wonderful show that should still be running today.
You’re not a particularly political comedian. Is that one of the reasons you were cast?
I don’t know why I was cast. Sid and Marty Krofft, they said, “You know, Fred, you were our first and only choice for this. You have a way of talking to the puppets as if they’re real people.” So about six months later I was in Las Vegas, and who comes down the escalator but Louie Anderson. And he said, “Oh, hi Fred, I love you on that DC Follies. You know, they offered it to me but I couldn’t do it.” So if they offered it to him they probably offered it to several other people. But that’s the nature of the business. And I just love Louie Anderson, and again, when I think of it, I think, Oh, he would have been perfect for the part! But I think I was pretty good.
What’s the line of yours that people most often quote back to you?
The one most often is, “Hey, wha happen?” And that was from, let’s see, A Mighty Wind. It’s kind of a fun catchphrase. I find myself saying it occasionally myself without thinking.
Which brings us to your Christopher Guest movies!
They are wonderful, and every once in a while I say to myself, God bless Christopher Guest. He called me in one day to do a movie that he thought he was going to call Waiting for Guffman. It was improvised — but it wasn’t just a like laughfest. He gave us his outline, and we tried to keep the movie just with our own words. So it was an actor’s dream. It wasn’t like, oh, what outrageous thing can I say in front of a freaking nightclub crowd or improv club? And he filmed hours and hours of stuff and then pared it down. He cut a lot of stuff out that really upset a lot of us — you know, oh my God, that twenty-minute bit I did on so-and-so is out — and he said, “Well, it was funny, but it didn’t move the script along.”
Best in Show was his most successful, and that did me so much good. People still quote my lines from Best in Show. I just look back and I say, you know, Christopher Guest just raised my whole career to another level. I hope he does another one. I don’t know, I think he got kind of burned out on it, and now every movie you read about is improvised and the actors just broke each other up on the set, so I think maybe he feels it’s been done. The last movie he did, For Your Consideration, I did a scene with Jane Lynch where we were interviewing some actors and we did the whole improv, then Christopher said, “Okay, we’re gonna to break for lunch and when we come back, we’ll turn the cameras around and shoot the other angle.” And Jane and I were both, “Turn the camera around?” He never did that before. He got what he got. But each outline has gotten a little more full with a few more suggested lines. I just hope I’m in the next one, and I don’t say that to be, what’s the word, self-effacing. He could go in a whole different direction. I just love working with him.
How much setup do you get for a particular scene? Do you guys do a lot of character-building stuff beforehand?
No, no, no! In the first movie, Waiting for Guffman, we got to Austin, and the very first shoot was a scene in the middle of the movie, just a scene where we were rehearsing this play and we’d been kicked out of our theater and we were rehearsing in a library. And we were all standing around in our spots, and he got the camera up on the balcony, and he said, “All right, action!” And there were actually people in the library wandering in and out of the action. It was Catherine O’Hara and me and Eugene Levy. And none of them said anything. We didn’t know what to say. And all of a sudden, I thought, Someone had better say something. So I suddenly said, “You know, in a library, I always wondered if you lost a book, do you have to just pay for it forever?” And they kind of chuckled a little, then someone said something, then we got into the scene. And some civilian walked into the scene and I said, “We’re acting here!” and he said, “Oh, sorry” — but it fit into the scene because we were rehearsing the play. And from then on, everything was a little better.
How much of the detail that goes into your character is improvised on set?
Well in Waiting for Guffman, he told me, “Catherine and you are travel agents in this town. You’re in all the local plays.” That’s what we took: These people just thought of themselves as the town stars, and we just chose not to go to New York and be on Broadway. And I kind of modeled it a bit after a husband-and-wife team that I studied with when I first got to New York; there was a couple, it was called Showcase Theater, and they had a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, and they had built a stage in their living room. And they were both “professional actors,” and I put quotes around that because I don’t know if they ever did anything professionally in their life. I just imagined what their home life was like, so I used that, in always giving Catherine notes and guiding her and directing her. She added the note that she had a few too many drinks now and then, and I added the thing that I was giving her notes.
When I did Mighty Wind, Chris said, “You probably owned a comedy club.” And I expanded that a bit to that I probably did one season of a TV show twenty years ago and thought everybody remembered it, but nobody remembered it.
You have that great line: “It only lasted one year, and that’s good because that’s how you establish a cult.”
[Cracks up.] Yes, because everybody rationalizes their own career. In Best in Show, he modeled me after the color commentator on the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, Joe Garagiola, so I used his voice beats. And he had that I’d coached a junior college football team, but I made it that I’d played professional sports for a season or two, and my thought was that, everybody watching the dog show would be completely fascinated with anything I said about myself and my professional career. So I would add things, Christopher would add a few lines, and I was always happy when he did that. In fact, I’d be happy if he wrote the whole script for me. That’s the ideal thing.
That’s funny because I was watching Christopher Guest on Charlie Rose, and he was talking about how you guys met when you were doing Little Murders on Broadway — and he said you caught his attention because you started improvising lines that were not in the play in front of an audience.
[Laughs.] That is not true, and I don’t know where he got that! But you know, a friend of mine brought that tape over and we started watching it and we laughed because every time he mentioned me, Christopher changed the subject: “Oh, no, Fred is wonderful, and then Eugene” — “Yes, but get back to Fred Willard!” — “Yeah, well, Fred was funny, but then Bob Balaban did” — “Yeah, but where did you find Fred Willard?” And God bless Charlie Rose — it was so nice of him to keep bringing me up, ‘cause Christopher doesn’t like to play favorites. But it was very funny. For the wrong reasons.
But I love Christopher, and he’s married to Jamie Lee Curtis, you know. And Christopher is the most quiet, gentle, guy — you can sit and never get two words out of him. Jamie Lee Curtis is such an extrovert and very ballsy. We were at a party at Eugene Levy’s house and she was talking to me and she said, “I’m gonna go inside and make out with your wife!” You can’t believe that they’re together.
One of the highlights of my career: I met her mother, Janet Leigh, at the premiere of one of Chris’s movies. And Janet Leigh came up to me and she said, “I’m Janet Leigh,” and I nearly fell over. I said, “Oh, I’m pleased to meet you.” She said, “You’ve worked with my son-in-law.” And I said, “Yes.” And then I also worked with Tony Curtis on a TV series called Lois & Clark. He was the most colorful — if you wrote a character of an ex-movie star, this is what he would have been. He was the most effusive, fun guy. He had trouble with his lines, but told stories about Marilyn Monroe, story after story. At lunchtime he sat in the middle of the studio with a stack of color eight-by-tens and signed them for the crew that lined up for his autograph. At the end of the day, I went up to him and said, “Tony, I’m wrapped, I’m leaving,” he says “Wait a minute! Give me a hug!” And he stood up and grabbed me and hugged me. Really old Hollywood.
And the other high point of my career, one of my idols, Burt Lancaster — I was on a series called Fernwood 2 Night. It was supposed to be a one summer replacement, but it got so much play, and all of Norman Lear’s celebrity friends loved the show and wanted to be on it. And Norman said, “Well, how do we justify that you’re on a show that takes place in this little town in Ohio?” So he decided to move it to a fictional town in Los Angeles where all these celebrities would drop by. So he held a news conference and Burt Lancaster was on the news conference. And he was my idol. So I got up to introduce him, I said, “Burt Lancaster, he was the star of Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Flaming Arrow” — and I paused, and I said — “and Burt, I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to memorize your list of films that you gave me backstage.” And he looked at me. Then he smiled and came over and gave me a big bear hug and lifted me off the ground. Almost broke my back, you know. But I’ll always remember that. At first he looked at me like, “What’s he saying?” And then — “Oh, this guy’s funny!”