'Modern Family,' Mockumentary Star Fred Willard Dead at 86
Fred Willard, the Second City actor who became known for his hysterically straight-faced appearances in the films of Christopher Guest, as well as for a sweet run on TV's "Modern Family" as the father of Ty Burrell's character, has died of natural causes at 86.
Willard's representative confirmed his passing to Rolling Stone after Jamie Lee Curtis — Guest's wife — had tweeted of his death, "How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard's gifts. He is with his missed Mary now. Thanks for the deep belly laughs Mr. Willard."
Willard's wife of 50 years Mary died in 2018.
His daughter Hope Mulbarger told People in a statement, "We loved him so very much."
Willard was born on September 18, 1939, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. After a stint in the army, he became a stage actor in the late '50s, including as part of the comedy team Willard & Greco with Vic Greco (who died in 2016). Appearing as as comedian on TV as early as the dawn of the '60s, he was a founding member of the Ace Trucking Company improv troupe and became a frequent "Tonight Show" performer.
Defying the usual trajectory, his career seemed to pick up steam over time, with stints on the "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" spin-offs "Fernwood 2 Night" (1977) and "America 2-Night" (1978) as well as a co-hosting gig on "Real People" (1979; 1981-1983) raising his profile. He was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for hosting "What's Hot, What's Not" (1985-1986), was part of the all-star cast of the Oscar-winning short "Ray's Male Heterosexual Dance Hall" (1987), and hosted Sid and Marty Krofft's political puppets on "D.C. Follies" (1987-1989).
From 1995-1997, he played the husband of his old "Fernwood 2 Night" scene partner Martin Mull's character Leon on "Roseanne" (1995-1997), a groundbreaking portrayal of a married gay couple, presented humorously. The characters' nuptials in 1995 was an early gay wedding on TV.
Over the course of his 60-plus years in entertainment, he hosted "SNL" (1978), was a voice actor countless times, performed off-Broadway, and made many appearances on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" as such characters as Fred Trump and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Kimmel tweeted of Willard's passing, "There was no man sweeter or funnier. We were so lucky to know Fred Willard and will miss his many visits."
He made perhaps his biggest impressions in film, in Rob Reiner's mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) and in Christopher Guest's mockumentaries "Waiting for Guffman" (1996), "Best in Show" (2000), "A Mighty Wind" (2003), "For Your Consideration" (2006), and "Mascots" (2016). His many hosting jobs made him perfect as oblivious announcers doling out dad jokes.
He was also fondly remembered for appearances in both "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" (2004) and "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" (2013), and was a three-time Emmy nominee for his performance as Hank MacDougall on 14 episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond" (2003-2005).
Willard stole hearts and rustled laughs as Ty Burrell's character Phil Dunphy's dad Frank Dunphy on 14 episodes of "Modern Family" from 2009-2020, which earned him another Emmy nomination. Earlier this year, Frank Dunphy died of natural causes on the emotional "Legacy" episode of the show.
He will be seen on 10 episodes of the Netflix parody "Space Force," which streams from May 29. Ironically, "Space Force" was the name of a pilot for a series he shot in the '70s that went nowhere, and is, of course, in real life the name of a newly created branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
In his final tweets, Willard had mourned the passing of old friend Jerry Stiller and rock legend Little Richard.
Willard is survived by his daughter Hope, his son-in-law Mitch, and his grandson Freddie.
Hollywood took to social media to remember the late, great comic:
Rest In Peace sweet @Fred_Willard. You will always be a true original and I am so honored that our lives intersected. No one will ever come close to replacing your genius.
RIP to the legendary #FredWillard. The first time I worked with him ironically it was a table reading for a Drama/comedy play. I was still in The Groundlings in those days. He looked right in my eyes when we had dialogue. Basic but vital acting tip. Oh and funny as f**k💔
I'm at a loss for words, a state Fred Willard never found himself in. My friend for 40+ years, a great comic actor who had no competition because there was only one of him. We were all so lucky. Goodbye, Fred.
Nobody funnier than #FredWillard. And when he happened to be in an audience, nobody laughed harder. Just saw him before quarantine & already miss him. He was my biggest fan and I am his. Fred & Mary were so kind to me. Sending a big virtual hug to his family, friends and fans pic.twitter.com/XAIsVzuwEs
VERY sorry to hear about Fred Willard. He was seriously the funniest goddam person. Always. Reliably hilarious. Every time I worked with him, he made me laugh so hard I blew bubbles out of my nose. I have hilarious footage of him no one has ever seen. I'll see if I can find it.
Kristen Johnston on Twitter: "My absolute favorite. If there was one actor I've been dying to work with my whole life, it's Fred Willard. I'm totally crushed he's gone. He should've won an Oscar for Waiting For Guffman. Broken heart."
Betty Buckley on Twitter: "Oh no…Love Fred Willard!! Just the funniest guy ever. #RIP MR. WILLARD."