Fred Willard was a gifted comedian whose unique style and improv roots made him a formidable performer. That’s how his longtime friend and frequent collaborator Martin Mull remembered Willard, who died May 15 at the age of 86.
“He was absolutely, unconditionally original,” Mull told Variety. “He worked so spontaneously. He had such a closet that he could go to. It was just remarkable. You never where he was going to go. He didn’t tip it.”
Mull and Willard met in 1977 on the set of “Fernwood 2-nite,” the syndicated talk show spoof produced by Norman Lear. Mull played noxious, leisure suit-loving host Barth Gimble. Willard played his dim-witted sidekick Jerry Hubbard who was known to pop off with nonsequitors and stern opinions about trivial matters.
Over time, Mull had a key insight that helped him learn to fall into a good groove with Willard.
“He never went for the joke. He went for the character. The character was always the joke for him,” Mull recalled. “He was such a delight to work with.”
Willard’s skill at improv and going off script kept other performers on their toes, and inspired them to rise to his level, Mull added. “You’d be struggling to keep up with him sometimes,” he said.
“Fernwood” was developed as a summer replacement series for Lear’s daytime soap opera satire “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” The series, which ran in the summer of 1977 and again from April-August of 1978 under the title “America 2Night,” has been a seminal influence on the current generation of mockumentary and satirical comedies.
The heart of the show was the unspoken “synch” between Mull and Willard. “Fred and I could improvise together. We could go off script,” Mull said. “He was a genius.”
Mull and Willard continued their partnership in 1985 on the HBO comedy miniseries “The History of White People in America.” The pair also played a gay couple as recurring characters on ABC’s “Roseanne” from 1995 to 1997.
Another testament to Willard’s character was the fact that his personality never changed over the years despite his fame and ubiquity on TV in such series as “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Modern Family.”
“Fred was still inexplicably funny in social situations. When you were at a party at his house, you never knew where he was going but it was always just a delight,” Mull said. “He was as kind and as gentle and as warm and generous a person as you could ever want to meet.”
(Pictured: Fred Willard, Martin Mull)