Comic actor Fred Willard, who appeared in more than 1,000 television episodes, more than 70 films and received four Primetime Emmy nominations, has died of natural causes, his daughter announced.
“My father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old,” Hope Mulbarger said in a statement Saturday. “He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”
Willard radiated a unique charm that established him as one of his generation’s most gifted comic actors. A master of sketch comedy, Willard was most heralded for his quick wit and improvisational expertise.
He was an alumnus of Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe and a founding member of the Ace Trucking Company sketch/improv group, appearing with it on two episodes of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1974.
Willard’s best-remembered film roles came in the improvisational mockumentaries directed by Christopher Guest — “Best in Show,” “Waiting for Guffman,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration.”
Willard received a funniest supporting actor in a motion picture American Comedy Award in 2001 for his portrayal of dog show broadcaster Buck Laughlin in “Best in Show.”
“How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard’s gifts,” Guest’s actress wife Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted. “Thanks for the deep belly laughs Mr. Willard.”
Willard also appeared in the 1984 mockumentary, “This Is Spinal Tap,” which Guest starred in and co-wrote.
Willard danced with Jane Fonda in “Fun with Dick and Jane,” appeared with James Mason in “Salem’s Lot,” with Jennifer Lopez in “The Wedding Planner” and Steve Martin in “Roxanne.”
In the 2008 Oscar-winning film, “WALL-E,” Willard portrayed the only major live-action character, Shelby Forthright, the CEO of the Buy-N-Large Corp. The character was shown only in videos recorded around the time of the initial launch of the starship Axiom. Forthright is the only live-action character with a speaking role in a Pixar film.
Willard’s first high-profile television role was as sidekick Jerry Hubbard in the 1977 syndicated talk show parody, “Fernwood 2 Night” which starred Martin Mull. Willard and Mull would reunite as romantic partners in 1995 on “Roseanne.” Their wedding in an episode later in 1995 was the first time an American television series had depicted the same-sex wedding of a recurring character.
Willard received the first of his three consecutive outstanding guest actor in a comedy series Primetime Emmy nominations in 2003 for his portrayal of the high school principal father of Amy MacDougall-Barone (Monica Horan) on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Willard was also nominated in the category in 2010 for his role as the father of Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) on “Modern Family.”
“Hard to think of anyone more associated with pure joyous comedy than @Fred_Willard, hard to think of anyone nicer and it’s especially hard to think that he’s gone,” “Modern Family” co-creator and executive producer Steve Levitan tweeted.
Willard made his television debut with comedy partner Vic Grecco on the Oct. 20, 1963 episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the first of their three appearances on the CBS variety show in a three-month span.
Willard will have a recurring role on the Netflix comedy “Space Force,” which will begin streaming May 29.
“Fred Willard was the funniest person that I’ve ever worked with,” “Space Force” star Steve Carell tweeted. “He was a sweet, wonderful man.”
Willard and Carell also worked together in the 2004 film, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”
Willard also appeared in the 1978 unsold NBC comedy pilot “Space Force.”
Willard’s other television credits include “Get Smart,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “The Love Boat,” “The Golden Girls,” “Married… with Children,” “Mad About You” and more than 100 appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Willard joined host Chris Harrison in providing the play-by-play of an “extreme pillow fight” on the Jan. 6 season premiere of the ABC dating series, “The Bachelor.”
Willard’s 2014-15 portrayal of the older brother of fashion designer Eric Forrester (John McCook) on “The Bold and the Beautiful” made him among the three winners of the Daytime Emmy for outstanding special guest performer in a drama series in 2015 along with Donna Mills and Ray Wise.
Willard received an outstanding talk or service show host daytime Emmy nomination in 1986, losing to Phil Donahue.
Willard was born Sept. 18, 1933 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where he was raised. He attended the Virginia Military Institute, then served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany.
Willard’s stage career began when he moved to New York in the late 1950s. His initial work included a production of the “Desperate Hours” at a YMCA, where he worked with Grecco.
Willard also appeared in off-Broadway productions of Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders,” Dan Greenburg’s “Arf and the Great Airplane Snatch,” and his wife Mary Willard’s “Elvis and Juliet.” He also performed in “Mame” at the Hollywood Bowl and the Los Angeles Reprise Theatre productions of “Promises, Promises,” “Anything Goes,” and “L’il Abner.”
In addition to his daughter, Willard is survived by his son-in-law, Mitch Mulbarger, and his grandson Freddie.
His wife of 50 years, Mary, a playwright and TV writer, died at age 71 on July 13, 2018.