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Fred Willard Interview: Iconic Funnyman on What Makes Us Laugh

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Fred Willard

Known as an actor, comedian, voice over actor and for his improvisational skills, Fred Willard is also familiar to audiences for his roles in This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.

Other film appearances include Silver Streak, Fun With Dick and Jane, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Wedding Planner, American Wedding, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie, Chicken Little and Expecting Mary.

“I think it’s an attitude, kind of a look at life that is a little different from the usual. You’re aware of different things that most people are not aware of or things that don’t bother most people. I think comedians are bothered by certain things and decide to talk about them in a funny way. So, a lot of it comes from being unhappy with the way things are going.”

The veteran funnyman received three Emmy nominations for his recurring role on the television series Everybody Loves Raymond, and in 2010 received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his role on the ABC comedy Modern Family as Phil Dunphy’s father, Frank Dunphy.

The Cleveland Ohio native achieved fame as Martin Mull’s sidekick on the television shows Fernwood 2 Night, Forever Fernwood and America 2-Night, and in 1995 reunited with his Fernwood co-star playing Scott, the romantic partner of Mull’s character on Roseanne.

Television credits are almost too numerous to mention. They include Get Smart, The Bob Newhart Show, The Love Boat, Mama’s Family, D. C. Follies, The Golden Girls, Family Matters, Friends, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Mad About You, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, That ‘70s Show, Pushing Daisies, Everybody Hates Chris, Castle, Chuck, The Closer and Raising Hope.

Willard portrays Megan Mullally’s ex-husband in the Fox series Breaking In on May 1, 2012.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your latest project is the Fox series Breaking In.

Fred Willard: Yes. I did that a few weeks ago, and it will be on soon.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the show and your character.

Fred Willard: The show just came on the air, so I’m not that familiar with it, but I think they provide security for people. There’s a party, and I’m Megan Mullally’s ex-husband. I show up with a very young new girlfriend, and the major part of our scene is that we get involved into a dance off. We keep matching each other’s dance movies. It gets pretty frantic.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There’s trouble between the exes?

Fred Willard

Fred Willard (Photo by Susan Maljan)

Fred Willard: Yeah. It turns out that she wins out. One of her business partners pretends he’s her date, so she won’t feel bad.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have any scenes with Christian Slater?

Fred Willard: No, but I did meet him the day before I went in. I’ve worked with him once or twice before. But, I just worked with Megan and about 100 extras and dancers.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How many episodes did you tape?

Fred Willard: Just one. I don’t know if they’ll use me again. It’s their second season, but Megan is new, so they just need to see how the show goes.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They may bring you back.

Fred Willard: It’s possible. He’s a funny character and her ex-husband, so it’s possible.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love your character on Modern Family. You are so convincing as Phil Dunphy’s dad. Your quirkiness is right on the money.

Fred Willard: Well, I worked with Ty Burrell a couple of years ago on a Kelsey Grammer show called Back to You, and I got to know him pretty well. It was the same producers as Modern Family, so they kind of wrote for my character.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are there any plans to reprise the role?

Fred Willard: Not so far. They keep talking about it. But, we’ll see.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was acting something you wanted to pursue from a young age?

Fred Willard: No, not at all. It wasn’t until I got out of school and went to New York. I decided just on the spot. I said, “I think I’ll be an actor.” I was always kind of interested in comedy and in the back of my mind thought maybe that would be a good thing to do. I just went to New York and got into an acting workshop, paired up with another guy (Vic Greco), and we formed a comedy team and did several TV shows. Just one thing seemed to lead to another, and then I ended up spending a year at Second City in Chicago.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What makes someone funny?

Fred Willard: I think it’s an attitude, kind of a look at life that is a little different from the usual. You’re aware of different things that most people are not aware of or things that don’t bother most people. I think comedians are bothered by certain things and decide to talk about them in a funny way. So, a lot of it comes from being unhappy with the way things are going.

I’ve always liked comedy. I prefer to go to a comedy play or a comedy movie because I think being able to laugh at something is really amazing. We all have problems and just need to go someplace and laugh. It’s a big contribution to the world.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I agree. Do you ever know if a particular comedy routine is going to work before taking it to an audience?

Fred Willard: Oh no, not at all, and sometimes a comedy routine won’t work. A year later, someone will come up and mention it to you and say, “Gee, I love that bit you did.” You’ll do it again, and it will suddenly get big laughs. It depends on the audience, on what comes before and how it’s presented. You never know. Things that are very funny to you sometimes get no response. It could be your fault, or it could be any of a million things.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I saw you last year on The Closer.

Fred Willard: That was a Christmas episode and was fun, but a lot of work. I was dressed in that Santa outfit, and you know, when you watch a show like that you don’t realize it is five long days dressed like that. I would’ve thought years ago, “Oh, he probably came in one day and did the whole thing.” But, it was difficult. I loved the role.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It certainly wasn’t a straight comedic part.

Fred Willard: No, because it’s a serious show. Much of the comedy came from Santa having a few drinks. Plus, it was a serious situation. My character’s assistant had been killed, so there was still the drama of who did it. But, Santa’s eccentricities made it funny. I wasn’t a real Santa. I was someone who thought he was Santa and had his own Santa Land. It’s like an Elvis impersonator. You take over the identification and almost think you’re that person.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you enjoy dramatic roles?

Fred Willard: I haven’t done many. But, yeah, I think they would be very challenging. I just went back to New York. They asked me to be in a reading of Hamlet. I’d never done Shakespeare, so I jumped at the chance. We had one rehearsal, and then did a reading at this beautiful home in the Village, which is called the Players Club where Edwin Booth lived and died in his later years. It was very enjoyable and kind of a challenge. I held my own in Hamlet, playing Horatio. I think I did quite well. I don’t know if I’d want to do back and do it on stage, memorizing all those lines letter perfect though.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You and Martin Mull were great on Roseanne.

Fred Willard: We had a lot of fun. I just worked with Martin in Cleveland. We did a pilot for some kind of a show that they are just putting together now. He’s always been wonderful to work with.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You must be good friends. Have you formed close relationships in Hollywood over the years?

Fred Willard: We don’t socialize much, but we always love to get together. When we work on a project, we’ll go out to lunch or dinner, or I’ll go to his house and we’ll spend time. In the business, you form many relationships, but you don’t particularly (at least I don’t) stay close to them socially. But, you’ll see them again at an awards ceremony or a function, and you pick up right away and suddenly you’re old friends.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You appeared on The Golden Girls years ago. What about Hot in Cleveland?

Fred Willard: They have not asked me to be on that show. I told Betty White that they should use me because I’m from Cleveland. She said, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” I told someone else the same thing. I was kind of joking. But, if they came up with the right role, I’d do it. I did another show for TV Land called Retired at 35. I did a few of those and just love working with George Segal. I really like what they’re doing at TV Land putting on old-time sitcoms with an audience.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The American Pie trilogy was recently released on Blu-ray.

Fred Willard: I was in the third one, American Wedding. I didn’t get involved in the new movie. I’m pretty funny with Eugene Levy, and I just love working with him. I’ve known him for years.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It seems that teenagers involved in sexual hijinks makes for funny movies.

Fred Willard: I think it breaks boundaries and gets a lot of attention. A lot of it is a good thing, and some of it isn’t so good. But, it sure was a moneymaker.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have a comedy workshop called The MoHos?

Fred Willard: That’s a group we do here in Los Angeles. We’ll put on a show about once a month. We have a group of people who come in and write sketches, and we’ll put them on the stage. We’ll usually take the ten or twelve best ones and put them in a show. We work at the Second City theatre in Hollywood. The show is about an hour. I think it’s really great for them to come in and write something, see it on stage and actually get a reaction and a feeling of what goes over with an audience.

Like you said, some things seem funny and may not be. Some of these sketches are hilariously funny in our workshop and might get some laughs on the stage. Other things that you don’t think will be funny will get big laughs. It depends on the night, the size of the theatre and who’s in the crowd. Very physical stuff tends to get laughs. But, every once in a while, something very subtle will get a big reception, too. It’s hard to figure out.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I heard you’re a huge baseball fan.

Fred Willard: Very much so. I love it. I always wanted to be a baseball player. But, it’s a tough game.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you play when you were a young boy?

Fred Willard: Oh sure. I played first base and played a little all around in college. I played shortstop and left field. I wasn’t very good, but I didn’t get to play a lot. You know, today’s colleges play 50 or 60 games. They have summer leagues and trainers. When I was growing up, I was always looking for someone to toss the ball around with me. It was hard to do.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your favorite teams?

Fred Willard: The Dodgers is a favorite because we live in LA and the Cleveland Indians because I’m from Cleveland, and I always like to see them do something. I tend to follow particular players I see when they’re coming up from colleges or the Minor Leagues. It’s interesting to see how they do. Sometimes young players appear out of nowhere, and they’re big smashes.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you into basketball? I saw a recent Tweet of yours that talked about the Final Four being Jesus, John Lennon, Elvis and Sofia Vergara.

Fred Willard: Oh my God, that doesn’t sound like me or my wife (who sometimes tweets from my account). But, that’s funny. I do get a little into basketball this time of year when they have the Final Four. I got invited to a LA Clippers game and it was quite exciting. I was allowed to bring one guest, so I took my grandson. That was great fun.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you interested in football?

Fred Willard: A little bit. I follow Tim Tebow. I read his book about a year ago, and I said, “This guy’s very special.” I watched him playing for Denver, and I kept saying he was like Superman. I can’t understand the people who are knocking him and saying that he won’t make a good quarterback. I mean, he’s phenomenal, and I think he’s going to be a big star no matter where he plays.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some people just like to criticize others.

Fred Willard: Well, it’s because he’s so “clean living” and religious. In LA, a player named Steve Garvey, who I got to know through some personal appearances, was just the nicest man. I guess people resented him because he was so nice and personable. There is always something to pick on.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you involved in politics?

Fred Willard: I just watch the primaries and think that the Republicans are all defeating themselves. I don’t remember any other time when whoever comes out is going to look kind of silly because … well, President Obama just looks better and better all the time because he’s just sitting there quietly in his office. That’s about the extent of my involvement. I just watch.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will Ferrell has announced there will be an Anchorman sequel. Will you be involved in the project?

Fred Willard: I don’t know. I’ve been hearing that for about a year. People say, “Hey, I hear they’re going to do another Anchorman.” I’d be glad to because I really enjoyed working with him. It’s one of those things. If they want me, they’ll call. If not, they’ll have someone else.

That was one of his most memorable movies, and he was a lot of fun to work with. It is one of the few times I’d ever broken up, not on camera, but my scene was coming up, and I was laughing at him. He was signing off and had to walk away, and I had to come up and tell him he was fired. Luckily, by about the fourth take, I had myself under control so they didn’t have to reshoot. But, that was one of the few times I laughed while I was working.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It must be very difficult to keep a straight face around Will Ferrell.

Fred Willard: Well, you don’t want to ruin the take. You just want to get in there and contribute.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any other projects coming up?

Fred Willard: I was in a movie with Morgan Freeman. Rob Reiner directed. It’s called The Magic of Belle Isle, and it will come out in June. I did something with Rob a few weeks ago, and he said there would be a general release in July and a limited release in June. I had never worked with Morgan before. He’s terrific.

I was a little intimidated around him and didn’t talk to him until the last day because you never know. He was very quiet, and I just didn’t want to set him off in any direction. He was very friendly though. I connected with him talking about CDs I had just collected by an old blues singer. Morgan remembered him and started singing his songs. I asked him if he still had his Blues Club, and he said, “Yes, I do.” I said, “Well, I just bought a CD collection of a guy named Smiley Lewis.” He looked puzzled for a minute. I started mentioning the songs, it registered with him, and he started singing one of the songs. That was nice. After my last scene, I said goodbye to Morgan and told him it was a pleasure working with him. It really was.

© 2012 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

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