Life as a sidekick has been good for Fred Willard
Fred Willard is everyman’s affable, half-witted sidekick.
But he’s a consummate wise fool whose name in the credits can often mean a measure of credibility.
In part, that’s the case with the Canadian independent film The Birder, in which Willard appears in a small but key role as the president of a nature area.
Made in various places around Essex County in 2012, The Birder has a gala opening Thursday at Windsor’s Capitol Theatre, then goes into general distribution on Friday at Lakeshore Cinemas. The film, which was directed by Windsor-born Theodore Bezaire, has a largely Canadian cast including Tom Cavanagh, Jamie Spilchuk and Mark Rendall. In addition to Willard, Graham Greene appears in a cameo.
Fame, said Willard, is fickle and occasionally inscrutable.
“You know, it always puzzles me how my name can mean something,” said the 74-year-old comic actor from his Los Angeles home. “I’ve done a lot of things that haven’t done all that well.”
On the other hand, one of the roles he’s most proud of — his mostly improvised cameo in Christopher Guest’s Best in Show (2000) — wasn’t even credited when the movie was released on DVD. Willard has a hilarious turn as a wisecracking dog show host who remarks that many of the smaller breeds would be eaten in some countries.
“I just zapped that one off but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.” Willard, curiously, is a lifelong supporter of animal rights and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
While the snub on the DVD bruised his ego, he soon got over it.
“Putting someone who is known in a movie or a TV show doesn’t guarantee it will do well,” he said. “It comes down to how good the script is or how well made it is.”
Willard is happy to report The Birder, at least as far as he is concerned, falls into the latter category.
“It was a very funny script. I have terrific memories of Windsor and I made a lot of good friends there. I’d come back at the drop of a hat.”
Willard plays a park president who ignites a minor dust-up when he passes over actor Tom Cavanagh’s part, Ron Spencer, for a promotion.
Willard admires The Birder, which he called “a pleasant little movie about birdwatching politics.”
This time the part was scripted, but Willard’s greatest triumphs were unscripted and wholly improvised. Take his 130 performances as vacuous Jerry Hubbard, Martin Mull’s partner on the mock-TV talk shows, Fernwood 2 Night and America 2 Night.
He has made memorable appearances as a member of the ensembles in a number of Christopher Guest comedies, including This is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. He also made a documentary-style HBO series, Family Tree, with old pals Guest, Michael McKean and Ed Begley, Jr.
His most recent movie role other than The Birder was reprising Ron Burgundy’s rival news anchor Ed Harken in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, opposite Will Ferrell and Steve Carell.
Born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, in 1939, Willard has been a fixture on TV and in films since the 1960s when he helped form the improv group The Ace Trucking Company. He made more than 50 sketch comedy appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show with the group.
“The only other time I was in Windsor, in fact, was with Ace Trucking Company at the old Top Hat,” said Willard.
Willard has had numerous recurring roles on TV, including Hank MacDougall on Everybody Loves Raymond, Henry Vincent on Mad About You, and Frank Dunphy on Modern Family. He also lent his voice to several animated series including King of the Hill, The Simpsons and Family Guy.
In 2012, Willard’s career hit a bump in the road when he was arrested in Hollywood for what police called “engaging in a lewd act” in an adult movie theatre. He was fined but never charged and went on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show later to say it was “painful” and “very embarrassing.”
Curiously, the incident may have done more good than harm.
“I started working more than ever after that. It’s like someone sees your name in the paper and they remember you. I hadn’t done a Modern Family for a couple of years, and suddenly (producer) Steve Levitan called me up.”
Life in the public eye is more challenging by the week now, he said, what with a camera on everyone’s cellphone.
“I came back from watching some spring training baseball in Phoenix and my wife (Mary) told me she saw me on Twitter. I don’t even remember posing for them.”