' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Fred Willard

Monday, May 18, 2020

In Memoriam: Fred Willard

Jane Lynch has told the story, both in her 2011 memoir “Happy Accidents” and in media interviews, like for the late, beloved Premiere Magazine where I first read it, how during filming of the 2006 mockumentary “For Your Consideration”, Fred Willard, playing one-half of an Entertainment Tonight-ish anchor duo opposite Lynch, was told by director Christopher Guest to just talk over her. So, he did. Lynch, purposely left in the dark at Guest’s request to help render the moment more real, was stunned. Co-star Catherine O’Hara pulled her aside explained what just transpired: “You’ve just been Willarded.” And that is the perfect description of Willard’s patented brand of blustery, run you over comedy. When actors are said to steal movies, it implies standing out in spite of everyone else. Willard’s idea of stealing a movie, however, conscious of it or not, was more akin to Clive Owen’s “Inside Man” character casually if forcefully explaining that upon robbing a Manhattan bank, he was just going to walk right out the front door.

If Willarding eventually emerged as his forte, he could downplay too, as he did opposite Martin Mull as a kind of comical Ed McMahon in the late-70s TV series “Fernwood 2 Nite” and its other variations, as well as the bartender straight man to so many American Presidents as puppets in the short-lived late-80s sitcom “D.C. Follies”, which as a geeky kid who loved Presidential biographies I remember enjoying even as some jokes flew over my head. But it was in Guest’s movie mockumentaries where Willard made his true mark, honing his singular blowhard persona, epitomized in the name of his character from the 1984 classic “This Is Spinal Tap”, Lt. Bob Hookstratten, making him sound like someone too big for his britches but too dim to know it. His time onscreen was brief but he made it count, his brawny voice not so much booming as existing as an aggressive assembly line of prattle, talking over everyone, talking right through everyone, where he purposely does not even let the “I’m joking of course” breathe.

He was Willarding, in other words. Perhaps his most iconic Willarding was “Best in Show” (2000), a mockumentary about a prestigious dog show for which his character, Buck Laughlin, did the television play-by-play. There Jim Piddock played the color commentating straight man to Willard who hysterically rendered his character totally oblivious to being the butt of his own jokes over and over. He had too many funny lines to count and everyone has their personal favorite so I will let each reader think of her/his favorite here. (It says something, though, about how funny Willard was that you could credibly say he had the funniest line in a movie that also contains Parker Posey saying “This? This is a fish.”) In “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), meanwhile, about a small-town Missouri theater troupe, Willard impeccably embodied every provincial blabbermouth who peddles the same jokes day after day and thinks he knows everything despite having never been anywhere. When I was at a donut shop in a small Illinois town a couple years ago, a local entered and immediately went about dressing down the workers and the regulars with a relentless string of bad jokes. Oh my God, I thought to myself, he’s Willarding.

Still, as with so much in my movie-loving life, for me, it all comes back to “Roxanne” (1987), a personal favorite. That was Steve Martin’s movie, of course, but, as the writer (adapting from Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac) in addition to being the star, he left plenty of room for others, including Willard as the not-entirely-unlikable windbag Mayor of the small Washington state ski town who moonlights as a firefighter under Martin’s fire chief. “I want it to say action with style,” Willard says during a uniform fitting, “like a GQ firefighter.” He is not even the focal point of the camera when he says it, off to the side, but he takes ownership of the scene anyway. And in his best moment, after fighting a climactic blaze and leading the post-celebration, he essentially Willards right over the entire town. In fact, let’s allow him, Fred Willard, who died on Friday at the age of 86, to take us out...

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