Saturday May 16, 2020
Fred Willard (1933-2020)
Fred Willard was one of my favorite interviews. It was in October 2000 in a hotel in downtown Seattle, and he and his wife, Mary Lovell, were in town to promote “Best in Show.” Sometimes when you interview someone it’s for a crap project and it can get a little awkward—particularly if they ask you what you thought of it. The only awkwardness here was holding back my enthusiasm.
But even that wasn’t really necessary since that’s basically who he was—an enthusiastic fan of comedy. In the interview he talked up Eric Idle, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Larry Miller, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy. “I spend most of my time when I’m with Catherine and Eugene repeating what they said on SCTV,” he said. In this way, he seemed like me—or us. A fan. We could’ve talked about SCTV for hours. I think his wife was in on the interview so someone would at least talk up him.
Fred died yesterday at the age of 86. Here’s the article I wrote back then: “Fred Willard Steals ‘Best in Show’ as All-American Idiot.” The interview (which I transcribed back then) is below. Mary’s comments are in italics.
In the “Best in Show” credits, it says “written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy.” But isn’t a lot of it improv?
Yes. What they wrote is the concept: each scene, the progression, the whole plot outline, and just left off the dialogue. In fact, the first script I got I called back, since I didn’t even see myself in the script. “Oh, that’s our mistake, we’ll have to send you a revised version.”
They [also] sent me a tape of the Westminster Dog Show. Christopher Guest said, “Now Joe Garagiola is the color guy. You gotta listen to him: He’s made no effort at all to learn anything about dogs—and this is not his first year, either.” So I watched it. I kinda got that speech pattern of the sports announcer that makes everything a little more important when he says it in a certain tone.
Mary: And everything always refers back to themselves.
I pictured this guy having broadcast maybe Major League games—but that was over and now he’s doing this. The next step down is maybe the local beauty show or high school football. So he’s really trying to give it his best and show, “Hey, I belong in a better place. I’m very knowledgeable. I’m going to cut through all the stuffiness to find out what’s going on.”
Mary: I’d have to say my favorite line is when you say Catherine O’Hara looked familiar.
My favorite line was “How much can you benchpress?”
That was just out of nowhere. But that was just this guy’s mentality: “The dogs are great, but hey, what about me?”
You know I forget how many [of the lines] were pre-planned and how many were...
But they were pre-planned by you.
Oh yeah. But a lot of them came right up on the spot. We did it in about five hours.
And the dogs weren’t there.
Just Chris Guest sitting behind a camera. And he’s come up and say, “Okay, now here’s the part where the toy terriers come out.” And then we’d go for that for a few minutes. And then he’d say, “Okay now the next batch is where I come out with my bloodhound.”
A funny thing. [My character’s broadcast partner] Jim Piddock—part of his exasperated look—he flew in from London and he needed to get back at a certain time. [Bad British accent] “I’ve got to tell them I bloody well have to be back in London on Wednesday, they damn well better film us tomorrow.” So a little of his petulance and anger… It’s like the story of Laurel and Hardy. Oliver Hardy’s look of exasperation came from the fact that he always wanted to go out and play golf and Stan Laurel would say, “Let’s do it one more time.”
Jim Piddock, when I was doing the scenes, I thought I was just rolling over him—which you hate to do as an actor—but then I saw how well he was holding his own with his facial expressions. He made the scene funnier. If someone is making a scene inane and funny, it’s even funnier if someone is frowning at them.
A lot of people in the cast are high-rollers. Michael McKean—I’ve known him for years. He never stops working. Plus “Spinal Tap” has come back now.
Which you were in.
I first met Michael, Harry Shearer and David Lander—who was Squiggy—they had a comedy group called the Credibility Gap in Los Angeles. Mid-70s. And I was in a comedy group called the Ace Trucking Company. We had one character who said, “Ya doesn’t have to call me Johnson...
And we were quite successful. We played all over the country. And one period—I’d become a big fan of the Credibility Gap. They were a little smarter than us, a little more political. Biting satire. I was a big fan. And we had to go to Chicago and Milwaukee—Milwaukee Summer Fest—we had 12 engagements and two of our guys were working elsewhere and we were going to cancel. And I said, “Why don’t the two of us work with those three guys, combine our material, and go?”
So we went on the road with them. At the time, I don’t think they’d even been to the Midwest. And everything was new to them, and great, and they were so surprised, because we had a tentful of people at Milwaukee Summer Fest; and slowly the audience would come to see us, the Ace Trucking Company, and wouldn’t laugh much at their stuff—which surprised me because their stuff was actually smarter. Ours was more cartoony. So we ended up doing more and more of our stuff. Except for one of theirs, which was the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen. It was a take-off of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” This one is a rock promoter coming around to a newspaper to put his ad in—he’s putting on a rock show. “Tell me, who’s on first?” “That’s right.” And the final one—what was the final one?
It’s Who, Yes, and Guess Who.
Yes. “And your closing act?” “Guess Who.” “I don’t know...” It’s funnier than Abbott and Costello’s because it actually makes sense.
So that’s how I knew them and I think that’s how I got into Spinal Tap. Which I didn’t want to do originally. My agent called and said, “They’re doing this—it’s a hard rock group, a heavy metal group, and you’re the army lieutenant who doesn’t quite catch on.” And I said, “Oh, it sounds like I’ll be made to look a fool.” He said, “Well, just go out and talk to them.” So I went out. They’d all gone out to lunch and the secretary said, “Rob Reiner would like you to see…” And they’d done 20 minutes of footage rather than write a script. They did a 20-minute test footage. So I sat and watched it and I was so knocked out by it, I said “I gotta be in this movie.” I couldn’t believe it was improvised. When they came back I said, count me in. They said, “Oh, let’s talk about billing,” and I said I don’t care—I just want to be in it. “Well, what about money?” I don’t care, I just want to be in it. And I had a great day filming it.
(Talks about a pilot he did with Christopher Guest and Catherine O’Hara in the late ‘80s; a “Real People” takeoff)
The next thing I knew he called me in to do “Waiting for Guffman.” It just came out of the blue one day. Chris Guest said, “You’re one of the first people I’ve contacted.” I said, Really? I’m flattered. “You’d be Catherine O’Hara’s husband, if we can get her.” I said that’d be wonderful. “Now a lot of my friends wanted to be in it, Marty Short called and said, ‘When do we start?’ I told Marty, ‘We want people who are not that recognizable, not that well known. We want someone whom no one knows.’”
Bob Balaban is such a scary actor. I saw him on “Seinfeld” as the head of NBC; and “Waiting for Guffman,” the scene where Catherine and I had to come in and audition, it felt like a real audition. I was really nervous. I had to interview him for “Best in Show” and again I thought he was going to snap at me.
He’s probably the nicest guy...
He’s very nice, but very intimidating. He scares me... I almost get the feeling he could fire me.
You often play a lot of roles like Buck in “Best in Show”—obtuse and self-centered. What else are you offered?
I get offered bad guys a lot, and I could never figure it out. I was just offered a movie where I’m just completely reprehensible, and I keep wondering where they get...
I think it’s your looks. And I don’t mean it in a bad way, I mean it in a good way. He’s an attractive man.
I always like playing characters who take themselves seriously but are bumblers. I don’t know how I fell into that. I guess I do have the ability to talk on and on and on. As you can see. (Laughs)
Alan Arkin directed me one time—first thing I ever did was an off-Broadway show. And he commented to someone once, he said, “Fred Willard and John Wayne are the only two people I know who can talk at length, and you think you understand them but they make absolutely no sense.”
Being compared to John Wayne, that’s not bad.
Yes. But not in the physical sense, unfortunately—not rough-hewned, masculine, dynamic. Just talks a lot. And he doesn’t know when to shut up!
Christopher Guest has zoned in on that and likes it. I hope he does another movie. I already have another idea for a movie but I haven’t approached him. After “Waiting for Guffman,” I had: Guffman Goes to Hollywood! But he said, [flat voice]“I don’t want to do that character for a while.
Did he say it in that kind of tired...
He’s kind of like that. He’s fun to be around because I get a little more eccentric when I’m around him. And actually Eugene Levy in real life is a very somber man, very serious. And for some reason I try to get outrageous around him.
I just love Eugene. I’ve just been such a fan of his from SCTV. I spend most of my time when I’m with Catherine and Eugene repeating what they said on SCTV.
And Larry Miller, whom I’m a big fan of, did a great scene [in “Best in Show”]. He’s just such a funny, dry man. I also loved Ed Begley. He was wonderful.
Someone asked me what I learned on these films. I learned—strangely enough from watching “Best in Show”—two of the guys I admired most were the butcher, when the gay fellows came in, and they were teasing the butcher: “Can I just hold the salami?” Just a complete, straight, puzzled look on his face. He didn’t try to be funny, he didn’t try to match them.
And Parker Posey, when she came in looking for the bee? That poor guy. That’s so hard to do when everyone is so funny—to not do anything. But it just made them so funny.
Plus watching Catherine work. She can do just nothing and make a scene hilarious.
Can you tell when you’re in the middle of filming whether it’s going to be good?
No. I tell my wife: When I started out I had a comedy partner. From there I went to Second City, I had a comedy team. Through all those years I knew exactly what was funny. Today I have no idea what is funny. I don’t know what the audience is going to like. I’ve given up. I’ll go in and I’ll audition for things and “Should I do this the way I think is funny, or should I be broader?” My fear is I’ll go home and they’ll say, “He wasn’t funny at all.” Or they’ll say, “Oh he was really over the top.”
Very seldom do I like the top shows on television. “Seinfeld”: we were such fans of that. And I love “Frasier.” But other shows I’ll tune in and think: I’m embarrassed by this. And the next thing you know it’s in the top 10. Other shows I’ll watch that are wonderful, they’re cancelled.
You know what’s really amazing? Guffman is number 17 on Amazon’s best-seller list.
We read some reviewer who said that it was one of the 10 funniest movies of the decade. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t know it was funny—I knew it was hilariously funny—but I didn’t know if the general public would think it was funny.
You grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
I did. There’s something no-nonsense about the Midwest. Everyone is very open. My aunts and uncles cut right through the nonsense. Even my mother would see someone and say, “Boy, what you see when you don’t have a gun.”
So there was a sense of humor around the house when you were growing up?
In fact his mother told him once to stop being funny. (laughs)
I remember once I went to open a milk bottle and milk squirted out all over my mouth. I started to laugh and she was very mad. I said, “But if that was in a movie you’d laugh.”
I was very constricted. But I had aunts and uncles who were funny. I had one aunt who was like Mae West. She lived in Pittsburgh. She was the successful aunt, her husband worked the steel industry, they had some money, they had been to Europe, they had been to New York and seen Broadway shows. At the drop of a hat she’d sing. She’d be drunk at dinner and they’d say, “Pat! For God’s sake, eat your dinner, there’s people starving in China!” And she’d say, “So should I choke on this food because people are starving in China?”
And I had another aunt who drank. Every Thanksgiving there’d be a dinner and she’d sit and cry—a lot of sadness in my family too—and she’d fall asleep and her husband would say, “Betty! Betty! Wake up and finish your drink!” But he was being serious.
I was an only child. My father passed away when I was 12, so it was very difficult. But I was always the class clown. I don’t know why, maybe as an escape. But then I was sent away to a military prep school. My stepfather was a military man—in the Air Force Reserve. You’d have thought he’d seen front line action but, yeah, he was stationed in Cleveland. But for discipline he was a typical stepfather. He didn’t like me, I didn’t like him, and I ended up at Virginia Military Institute, where I got some of my background for Spinal Tap: the military sensibility.
I was never in a show there, I wanted to be a baseball player. They never had a drama club there. I once joked that if the did have a drama club all they’d ever do was 12 Angry Men and Stalag 17. And I went back to the campus once and they did have a drama club and they were doing Stalag 17.
Every time we have a bad meal and Mary complains, I say, “You gotta spend four years at a military school.”
But I played a lot of sports there. I was a very mediocre baseball player. I thought I was much better than I was.
But college baseball, that’s pretty good. You could hit a curveball.
If I did, not very well. If I say I hit one out it meant out of the infield.
I went to New York and said, “Well, I’ll be an actor.” Went to acting school. There was a guy in the class, he and I used to joke around together, we had the same sense of humor. We started putting together sketches to be in a comedy revue that never came out. But by then we had 10 or 12 sketches and the producer put us up in our own show. We wound up on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show”.
What were you called?
“Greco and Willard.” We were on around the time Wayne and Schuster were on. Bert Lahr was on. Then I went to Second City for a year by myself, and then got into a comedy group called “Ace Trucking Company”—that again was on the Ed Sullivan Show.
And on Mike Douglas with John Lennon.
Yeah, we were on that one.
How did you hook up with Martin Mull?
My agent called me and said they’re doing a show called “Fernwood Tonight” and they need a host—it’s like a take-off of the “Tonight Show”—and I’d just done Second City where I’d played the host of the old Amateur Hour, Ted Mack, very funny sketch. I said, “I just did that at Second City.” They said, “You wouldn’t be the host, you’d be the Ed McMahon.” I said, “I’m not that...”
They said Martin Mull would be the host. I’d just seen him do an act in LA, and I thought he was really good. But I wanted to be a sitcom actor so I started naming people who I thought would make a good Ed McMahon. They said: At least come in and do a few run-throughs. And they worked so well, and we end up having so much fun. It was just two wonderful years. He was a big fan of my humor and I was a big fan of his humor.
They still make each other laugh.
You could never top him. You could never make a joke and top him. I called him the other night—I had an idea for a project—and he said, “Just a minute, let me turn down the TV.” He came back, he said, “It’s the Olympics. They’re on every four years, but how often do you call?”