Fred Willard's close friend and frequent co-star Martin Mull remembered the comedy legend as an "absolutely" original force with an incredible talent for improvisations. Willard died Friday night at age 86 from natural causes. He worked with Mull on the satirical late-night series Fernwood 2 Night, which was created by Norman Lear. They both appeared on Roseanne during the 1990s as well.
"He was absolutely, unconditionally original," Mull told Variety Saturday. "He worked so spontaneously. He had such a closet that he could go to. It was just remarkable. You never knew where he was going to go. He didn't tip it." Mull went on to praise Willard for never going "for the joke," but "for the character instead. "The character was always the joke for him. He was such a delight to work with," the Clue actor added.
Mull and Willard first met in 1977 when they were cast on Fernwood 2 Night, a 1977 syndicated summer replacement comedy. The series spoofed late-night talk shows, with Mull as host Barth Gimble and Willard as his dim-witted sidekick Jerry Hubbard. Mull and Willard reprised the roles in 1978's America 2-Night, and later reunited for HBO's 1985 comedy miniseries The History of White People in America. They also played a gay couple on Roseanne from 1995 to 1997.
"Fred was still inexplicably funny in social situations. When you were at a party at his house, you never knew where he was going but it was always just a delight," Mull recalled. "He was as kind and as gentle and as warm and generous a person as you could ever want to meet."
Willard appeared in more than 300 movies and television shows, dating back to the mid-1960s. He earned three Emmy nominations for his guest role on Everybody Loves Raymond and a fourth for playing Ty Burrell's on-screen father in Modern Family. He never retired, and will be seen in Netflix's upcoming Steve Carell sitcom Space Force, which will be released on May 29. As a testament to his work, many of his colleagues called him the funniest actor they ever worked with.
"Fred Willard was the funniest person that I've ever worked with. He was a sweet, wonderful man," Carell wrote in a tweet. Harry Shearer, who worked with Willard on This Is Spinal Tap, wrote in an emotional post, "Just learned of Fred Willard's passing. Just about the funniest human ever to walk the planet. An amazing talent, in telekinetic contact with the very wellspring of comedy."