RIP Fred Willard

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…

9 thoughts on “RIP Fred Willard”

  1. I loved Fred Willard’s roles in the Christopher Guest mockumentaries. He was priceless in Best of Show as the “color man” announcer in the dog show segment. RIP.

  2. TV producing takes odd turns, doesn’t it? He did an interview with Gilbert Gottfried for his podcast awhile back; I’ll have to revisit it. He was one of the greats when it came to creating characters and improvising.

  3. I spent most of yesterday watching everything I remember seeing Fred in, making others to watch, and laughing til I couldn’t breathe. I spent an hour on the phone reminiscing with my dad, who’s a year younger than Fred and shocked to have outlived him. Fred’s tone and inflections sound just like home to me-I didn’t know he was also from Shaker Hts. until yesterday!

    I’ve always said the best comedic actors are from the Midwest. Something about their humility and humanity combined are solid gold. As Fred said, “Cleveland is my hometown, and the Indians have a narrow but rich history “.

    We will all miss you, Fred!

  4. Once my husband and I were on the same plane from L.A. to Detroit with Fred Willard. He was very cordial to everyone at the airport as he was easily recognized. Sorry to see another good man gone.

  5. My wife and I met Fred briefly when we flew to Hawaii for our wedding in 2004. I didn’t think it was him at first, what actor rents a Budget car? Both he and his wife were very nice. Our condolences.


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