Actor Fred Willard passed away in Encino on Saturday morning. I interviewed Fred once for this magazine and he told me how much he enjoyed my Ask Chris column and asked about the old Alexandria Hotel downtown. Once I figured it out for him he had more questions about L.A. history. Our shared love of the city and its hidden treasures sparked a friendship of many years.
Fred had a lot of interests and was insatiably curious. The walls of his home were filled with bookshelves and he loved sharing them with friends. I accompanied him to an exhibition on Harry Houdini, and the magician’s biography appeared in my mailbox a few days later.
Fred’s wide-ranging filmography dates back more than 50 years, with roles in classic shows like The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote, and The Golden Girls, and an Emmy-winning turn on the soap opera The Bold & The Beautiful. He starred alongside the puppets of Sid & Marty Krofft in D.C. Follies, But he is perhaps most recognized from the series of mockumentary films by director Christopher Guest.
As busy as he was acting (he has more than 300 credits on IMDB) Fred was always available to lend a hand for the many nonprofits he and his playwright wife Mary supported. The couple were longtime members of Actors and Others for Animals and put together a fundraiser where Fred and actor Jim Piddock reprised their Best in Show roles as dog show judges, ranking actors and their pets. Of course, his improvised lines were just as great as in the movie.
He was up for anything, bringing his mellifluous baritone to benefit shows for the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, where we had him play Rod Serling and the alien leader from Plan 9 from Outer Space. I once invited him to a World War II theme party onboard a ship and asked him to run up to the mic, hold up a headline, and announce that the war was over. He was the voice of authority and his ability to bring a sober gravitas to ridiculous situations was always hilarious. He was great at portraying a leader you wanted to follow, even if you weren’t quite sure he knew where he was going. His role as president of Earth in Wall-E marks the only time a human has ever appeared in a Pixar film.
He was the voice of authority and his ability to bring a sober gravitas to ridiculous situations was always hilarious.
He was as effortlessly funny and genial and kind and warm as you can imagine and I treasure the time we spent together. He seemed quieter after his wife Mary passed away in 2018, but kept on working, including a role on the upcoming Netflix comedy Space Force and regular guest appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where he first brought back his character from the original 1970s show of the same name. Kimmel cast him in a recurring bit where he would be interviewed as some opinionated CEO or sure-of-himself yokel or the racist ghost of George Washington.
“I am sad to say goodbye to Fred Willard,” Kimmel tweeted on Saturday. “Who was still the funniest of men at age 86.” Monday night’s episode of the late night show was dedicated to Fred.
Willard is survived by his daughter Hope, son-in-law Mitch, and grandson Freddy.
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