Fred Willard the Best in Show and in Character
For now, Fred Willard is persona non grata on television. For what, for being caught in an adult theater behaving in a manner that is probably more normal that abnormal in place like that. He wasn’t driving drunk, wasn’t abusing drugs, or yelling out anti-Semitic remarks. I wish the network execs would have taken the time to consider what a good man Fred Willard is—a man of humility and the kindest of souls—the Fred Willard I know. I first met Fred at the New York City Improvisation in the late seventies. He had come in to watch the show. Afterwards we introduced each other and we spent about five minutes talking comedy, before our conversation turned to baseball. Within a few minutes of meeting Fred it was evident that he was very shy, soft spoken, and humble.
I met him again years later on the syndicated TV show, D.C. Follies, a Sid and Mary Krofft production. The show was a political satire that took place in a fictional bar in Washington DC, where the world’s VIPs, all portrayed by life-sized puppets, unwound with their beloved owner—Fred Willard. Fred, even though he was the only human star of the show, had the ego of a puppet extra. During meetings he would sit quietly and treat everyone, no matter their job, politely and with respect. During breaks he’d spent much of his time attached to his Sony Walkman, listening to Elvis and old Rock and Roll—music that would have been played in the vintage cars he drove; and I’m not talking about old muscle cars. No, much like his personality, they were unassuming vehicles, Dodge Darts, Ramblers, and old Plymouths
During production he gave the writers and our scripts respect that we never experienced in Hollywood. He would literally, and I’m not exaggerating, ask if it was okay if he switched the word “the” for the word “a.” If, on the rare occasion, he had a joke or line suggestion it would emerge from his mouth only slightly louder that his exhale, then would genuinely be surprised by our acceptance.
We ended each show with Fred at the bar talking to either the puppet of Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon, both voices done by John Roarke (an ex member of the show Fridays and also a friend of Larry David). John and I would often walk around the set imitating Larry, who at the time was unknown by most of the world. Fred would look at us and smile politely amused by our ramblings.
D.C. Follies was well received by critics and had good ratings. One of the things that made it so effective was that Fred had amazing chemistry with the Puppets. He humanized them—we’d often forgot they were made of foam rubber. Taping the end of the show was the most fun for me. In the rehearsals, right before the final credits would roll, I’d let Fred and John ad lib for the last three minutes. I’d record it, edit it, have the best stuff typed, hand it to them for the taping of the final scene and let them adlib off that. Their conversation often went in unexpected directions like an electrically stunned fly. Fred and John, as Reagan, had discourses that created an indefinable logic that often had us in hysterics. From years of doing shows, I knew that ad libs made in front of a crew, often weren’t funny when later seen on tape, mainly because they were said in the moment. The ad libs that Fred and John created followed a logic that was independently funny and transcended the live aspect. Of course, when the taping was finished the staff and crew would applaud. Fred demurely thanked everyone like he was just a byproduct.
In the years since D.C. Follies any time I called Fred I was always greeted with such good cheer and warmth it made it clear that I was speaking to a very good, very special man; a man who will always have my admiration and respect; a man who like all of us has flaws. And like all of us should be judged, not by one victimless incident, but the sum total of all he is. Just the thought of his character in Best of Show makes me grin and reminds me of what a special talent Fred Willard is and how his decency and humanity dwarfs that big talent.