After news broke that comedic actor Fred Willard passed away at the age of 86 on May 15, 2020, celebrities and fans couldn’t help but get emotional. Over the course of his career, the actor — who was married to Mary Willard for 50 years — showed off his comedic chops in several movies and television shows, including Modern Family, Best in Show, and Waiting for Guffman.
Willard’s only child, Hope Mulbarger, confirmed her father’s death in a statement to NPR and reflected on his work ethic and legacy. “He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end,” she said. “We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”
The funny man’s former Modern Family co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson called him “a true original” via Twitter, while filmmaker Judd Apatow took to the social media platform to share that the star was “the sweetest person you could ever meet.”
Despite making people laugh and having a great reputation in the entertainment business, there was so much more to the late actor.
Fred Willard originally had another career path in mind
Before Fred Willard got his start in show business, the actor wanted to pursue another passion — baseball. According to The Washington Post, Willard attended the Virginia Military Institute for college, where he played baseball. “I always wanted to be a baseball player,” Willard previously said in an interview, per The New York Times.
So, how did Willard become interested in America’s favorite pastime to begin with? “Cleveland is my hometown, and the Indians have a narrow but rich history,” he said during an interview with ESPN in 2002. “I first became interested in ‘great moments’ when I read about the famous Feller-to-Boudreau pickoff play in the 1948 World Series.”
Ultimately, Willard’s career went in a different direction when he realized he could make people laugh. “I didn’t mean to be funny,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I have always been more relaxed around comedy.”
Fred Willard's wife was also in show business
Fred Willard’s wife, Mary Willard, passed away at the age of 71 in 2018, per Deadline. Prior to her death, Mary was involved in the entertainment business just like her husband. The couple — who were teenage sweethearts — tied the knot in 1968 and remained married until her death.
“Champion is the one word that comes to mind when remembering Mary Willard and she wasn’t just Fred Willard’s best cheerleader, but she also mentored and nurtured a number of creative comedic writers and actors through the Willards’ Los Angeles-based comedy sketch group The Mohos over the last two-plus decades,” wrote Anthony D’Alessandro, who, incidentally, was previously part of the sketch group.
Mary’s first play, Elvis and Juliet, successfully ran for one year and even sold out at the Theatre at the Improv in Hollywood. Later on, her musical comedy, Moon Shine!, premiered in 2003. The production “was nominated for 11 awards and won three Artistic Director Awards in 2008,” per Deadline.
Over the course of his career, Fred Willard was nominated for four Emmys
Despite being the lead in numerous movies, Fred Willard was perhaps most celebrated for shows he guest-starred on. In fact, he was nominated for four Emmys for his guest star work. Willard was nominated three times for playing Hank on Everybody Loves Raymond from 2003 to 2005, and in 2010, he was nominated for playing Frank Dunphy (Phil Dunphy’s father) on Modern Family. Ultimately, Willard didn’t take home a trophy for his scene-stealing abilities, but he did win a Daytime Emmy Award in 2015 after he guest-starred on The Bold and the Beautiful.
Naturally, Willard was honored to receive the trophy. “It was quite a surprise,” he told GoldDerby. “I didn’t expect it, but it was great. I still have the statue and it’s nice. You know, people say, ‘winner of a Daytime Emmy award,’ and it is nice. It was a lot of fun. I don’t know how well-deserved it was … but I was really tickled to get it.”
Of course, Willard’s ability to make people laugh did not go unnoticed among his peers and close circle of friends. “A four-time Emmy nominee radiated a unique charm that established him as one of our generation’s most gifted comic actors,” Willard’s rep, Glenn Schwartz, wrote in a tribute, via Rolling Stone.
Schwartz continued, “A master of sketch comedy, Fred was most heralded for his quick wit and improvisational expertise, which he demonstrated in hundreds of appearances on stage, on the big screen, and on a wide range of television shows.”
Fred Willard was a fan of this reality series
Even though The Bachelor is filled with drama, Fred Willard enjoyed the ABC series and even made a few appearances on the reality show. “I wouldn’t say he was a student of The Bachelor, it’s not like he watched the show religiously before he came to work with us, and yet he seemed like he had been a member of Bachelor Nation forever,” executive producer Bennett S. Graebner told E! News in May 2019.
Willard told the outlet that it was “really fun” to shoot the reality show, adding that he was “always pleased” when he was asked to return. “It’s like having a front row seat to the things, rather than watching it on TV. You see how it’s done.”
Following the news of Willard’s passing, Bachelor host Chris Harrison took to Instagram to honor the late actor. “We lost a legend today. I’ll never forget back in 2017 during @ariejr season I found out, for some reason, Fred Willard had accepted our offer to co-host a group date with me,” Harrison began.
“We all instantly fell in love with this kind, giving, talented man,” Harrison continued. “After that day, we agreed we’d keep asking Fred to come back as long as we could. Season after season he came back. He became a part of our Bachelor family.”
Whether you watched Willard on television or on the big screen, one thing is for sure: he will be missed.
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