Fred Willard, Master of Comic Cluelessness, Dies at 86

The actor was great at improvisation and brilliantly amusing on 'Fernwood 2 Night,' 'Everybody Loves Raymond' and in Christopher Guest mockumentaries.

Fred Willard, the clever comic actor who played clueless characters to perfection on Fernwood 2 NightEverybody Loves Raymond and as a member of a great ensemble in several Christopher Guest mockumentaries, has died. He was 86.

Willard died Friday night in Los Angeles of natural causes, his agent Michael Eisenstadt told The Hollywood Reporter.

His daughter, Hope, said he passed "very peacefully … He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever." 

Always amusing, Willard also elicited grins as station director Ed Harken in the two Anchorman films and as the voice of Shelby Forthright, the lone human in WALL-E (2008). He can be seen this month in a recurring role as Steve Carell’s dad on the Netflix series Space Force.

Willard received Emmy nominations in three consecutive years for portraying Hank MacDougall, the conservative father-in-law of Brad Garrett's Robert, on Everybody Loves Raymond, and more recently, he nabbed another one for playing Frank Dunphy, father of Ty Burrell's Phil, on Modern Family.

Willard was one of those actors who made you smile at first sight, and even his characters' names sounded funny: Mr. Stuffleby (from Wizards of Waverly Place), presidential assistant Feebleman (Buck Henry's First Family), Basil St. Mosely (The Wedding Planner), Mayor Deebs (Roxanne), Vincent Vanderhoff (Americathon), Vice Principal Mallet (Family Matters) and Sigvard Thorsten (Easy to Assemble).

Like Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy, Willard collaborated often with writer-director Guest on his comedies, which relied heavily on improvisation. His mind seemed to go a mile a minute.

"How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard's gifts," actress Jamie Lee Curtis, Guest's wife, wrote on Twitter.

He played an Air Force colonel in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), then was travel agent/amateur actor Ron Albertson in Waiting for Guffman (1996); dunderheaded announcer Buck Laughlin in Best in Show (2000); Mike LaFontaine, blond-haired manager of the New Main Street Singers, in A Mighty Wind (2003); and smarmy newsmagazine host Chuck Porter (supposedly modeled on Billy Bush) in For Your Consideration (2006). 

Willard also appeared on the Guest TV shows Family Tree at HBO and Mascots at Netflix.

Years earlier, he worked with a bunch of puppets, playing a bartender (again as the only human) on the Sid & Marty Krofft syndicated series D.C. Follies.

In 1977, the good-natured Willard had a career breakthrough when he was cast on the late-night syndicated comedy Fernwood 2 Night, playing dimwitted talk show co-host and sidekick Jerry Hubbard opposite Martin Mull as Barth Gimble, late of Miami Beach.