Jimmy Kimmel Celebrates Fred Willard in Emotional Tribute Episode

Jimmy Kimmel paid tribute to beloved comedic actor Fred Willard, a close friend of the comic as well as a frequent guest star on Jimmy Kimmel Live who died last week at 86. During Monday's episode of the late-night show, which was entirely dedicated to Willard, Kimmel opened with a monologue that honored their friendship and Willard's comic genius.

"He was more than just funny. He had a light inside him; you could see a glint of it in his eyes. And it made everyone around him happy," Kimmel said, also sharing a sweet story about working with Willard years ago. They were shooting a sketch in his house, with the Best In Show star "uncharacteristically down" because his wife threw away their Christmas tree — despite the fact that it was already June. Kimmel said Willard liked to exercise by sawing bits of the tree, and he'd gotten depressed when his wife, Mary, got rid of it. So to cheer him up, Kimmel managed to find a pine tree that same day and sent it to his house, which he said cheered him up massively. "In a lot of ways, Fred Willard was like a Christmas tree in June — a little weird, familiar but still surprising to see it, full of good memories and you're just instantly happy that it's there," Kimmel said.

Kimmel and Willard worked together many times over the years, with their collaborations growing more frequent in 2018, after Mary, his wife of 50 years, died. Kimmel said he wanted to find something to work together on, and found the perfect opportunity in President Donald Trump's announcement of Space Force. Kimmel knew Willard starred in the 1978 TV movie Space Force and asked him to reprise his role from the film.

"After that, we started putting him in everything, every sketch," Kimmel said. "There were days when I would get different writers pitching five different bit ideas for Fred. Sometimes he'd be in two bits per monologue, and I couldn't choose between them. We could not get enough Fred."

Kimmel went on to say that no matter the circumstances, Willard was always a delight. "He never had any time to prepare for these bits. We'd call him at noon, and say, 'Hey, today you're gonna be a boat captain.' He'd say, 'Aye-aye,' and he'd be on set by two," Kimmel recalled. "We'd do one run-through of the script…. And then he and I would do it with no rehearsal live in front of the audience and he nailed it every time."

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The late-night host wrapped up his monologue with a montage of snippets from a few of his favorite Willard sketches, and spent the rest of the evening speaking with the actor's longtime friends and former co-stars, reflecting on his life and legacy. Guests like Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Martin Mull, Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen, Ray Romano, Norman Lear and director Christopher Guest all reminisced on Willard's ability to elevate every project he was part of.

As previously reported, Willard died Friday at the age of 86, his daughter, Hope Willard, confirmed on social media. Willard's agent, Glenn Schwartz, told Rolling Stone that Willard died of natural causes. Willard passed away "very peacefully," according to Hope. "He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever," she said.