I’m sad to learn that Fred Willard has died. I was a big fan of his and was lucky to work with him twice.
The first time was when he guest-starred in a DIAGNOSIS MURDER episode that I co-wrote, “Must Kill TV,” that was a spoof of network television. We spent a lot of time between takes on set talking about his career, FERNWOOD TONIGHT, and even his work on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. I had a blast.
The second time was some years later. I was invited to be a guest on TV KITSCHEN, a half-hour pilot he starred in with Martin Mull. It was essentially an attempt to reboot FERNWOOD TONIGHT. I was asked on to be interviewed about memorable unsold pilots…specifically TARZAN IN NEW YORK…because of my book on the topic. I gladly agreed and they said they’d secure clips from the show. But I was shocked when, the day before the taping, a script arrived at my front door. I thought TV KITSCHEN was going to be an actual talk show, not a scripted sitcom… there was a character named “Lee Goldberg” and I had lines to learn. I’m not an actor, so I was very nervous.
I showed up at the studio in a collared shirt and khakis and met the director, who was Ted Lange, the bartender from THE LOVE BOAT. He looked at me and said “Lee Goldberg wouldn’t wear that.”
“I am Lee Goldberg,” I said. “I can assure you that this is how I dress.”
He dismissed my comment and sent me to wardrobe, where they put me in a turtleneck and a blazer. I looked like a syndicate hitman on a 1970s episode of MANNIX… or a cliche of a college professor.
This only made me more nervous. I was sent to make-up and found myself sitting next to Fred. He introduced himself, and asked if we’d worked together before because I looked familiar. I reminded him about the DIAGNOSIS MURDER episode. I admitted to him how nervous I was. He told me to relax, that there were teleprompters all over the set with the dialogue…and that he and Martin had been ad-libbing a lot. He told me to concentrate less on remembering the scripted dialogue and more on being myself. He assured me that he and Martin would make me feel at home and to just roll with it, to forget the cameras were even there.
So that’s what I did. The first take I was very stiff, reciting my scripted dialogue. Fred leaned over and whispered, forget the dialogue. You know the gist of it, be you. So I did that…and from that moment on, it was a blast.
The pilot didn’t sell and, as far as I know, never aired. But I have a copy of it somewhere. I need to dig it up and watch it…