Modern Family Star Fred Willard on Planes: Fire & Rescue, Choosing Roles, and the One Huge Part He Turned Down
Fred Willard has had a long and illustrious career. He always brings energy to his characters whether he’s playing Frank Dunphy (Phil’s dad on Modern Family), a talking Jeep in Planes: Fire & Rescue, or announcer Buck Laughlin in the classic comedy Best in Show.
And he’s absolutely hilarious.
Willard admits that he’s been funny his whole life, and often got into trouble in grade school for being the class clown. “I was always making my friends laugh,” he recalls.
Luckily, he was able to turn what he loved into a career. Over the years, Willard has performed in everything from improv to television to movies. In his latest role on the big screen, Willard plays the Secretary of the Interior in the Disney animated feature Planes: Fire & Rescue. Willard is no stranger to being a voice artist; he’s done it many times before, including providing the voice for Shelby Forthright in the movie Wall-E and Officer Brown in the animated television seriesKing of the Hill.
“I was just thrilled,” says Willard, speaking about receiving the call to do Planes. “I just love everything that Disney and Pixar do. Not only do they do beautiful films, but they have great messages for kids.”
When he works as a voice artist, Willard says he often is asked to stick to the script for a few takes, and then, in some cases, he is asked to improvise. “It’s like a toothpaste tube. You can squeeze it, but there’s always a few more squeezes that the writers don’t know that the actor might have, some slant on a character.”
Willard says that lots of people asked how he prepared to voice the Secretary of the Interior. “I just talked the way I thought a Secretary of the Interior would—from watching news and television when they’re in an official capacity,” says Willard. “And then I had to figure out what it would sound like coming from a Jeep.”
While Willard has played seemingly countless roles, he does have a method of selecting the parts he plays. “I like the characters that have some redeeming quality or if it’s interesting to me in any way… I try to shy away from playing cranky people, but if it’s just a funny next-door neighbor or business man, I’ll say, sure, why not?”
Willard tries not to be too choosey because he admits that he’s made some mistakes in his life by turning down roles that in hindsight he wishes he’d done. So what’s the biggest role he’s turned down? The lead role of Ted Striker in the comedy hit Airplane.
Here’s what happened: at the time, Willard was co-hosting the TV series Real People. He had done a couple of movies that were panned by critics. He recalls them saying things like, “Did anyone ever read this script?” in their reviews. So after reading the script for Airplane and seeing all the puns and plays on words, he was leery about taking the role.
He remembers his manager telling him that if he didn’t want to do it, they would turn it down.
That’s exactly what Willard did.
Meanwhile, he had worked on a movie with writer/director Buck Henry called First Family. When they were doing a looping session, Henry walked in and said, “Well, I just saw this summer’s big hit movie.” The actors at the session asked him what it was.
“He said, ‘Airplane.’ I could almost hear in my head, ‘Noooooo!’” recalls Willard. “Boy, did I make a mistake. So it went on to be a huge hit, and Robert Hays played the role, and he was wonderful.”
“There were a lot of things that I turned down that I don’t remember as much. I just wiped them out of my mind,” says Willard. “But I’ll always remember Airplane.”
Michele Wojciechowski is the award-winning author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box, writer of the award-winning humor column, Wojo’s World®, and a not-yet award-winning stand-up comic. A little known fact about her is that she also turned down the role of Ted Striker in Airplane, which is funny because she was a little girl at the time it was filmed. Check out her website at www.wojosworld.com.