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Where there's Fred Willard, there's a funny way

It's busy times for the laugh-a-minute actor who enlightened ‘Best in Show.’
/ Source: The Associated Press

He plays the gladdest of glad-handers, the hardest of blowhards, the goofiest of goofballs.

The words that spew from his unfiltered mouth!

You cringe. Then you cry, laughing.

He's typically the third guy through the door, and you're always glad to see him — because Fred Willard probably gets more laughs per minute of screen time than anyone in the movies.

At 66, he's working as much as ever. This summer he's in "Monster House." Later this year he'll be in "I Could Never Be Your Woman" (starring Michelle Pfeiffer; directed by Amy Heckerling) _ and in his fourth Christopher Guest film, "For Your Consideration," about three actors whose performances in an independent movie ("Home for Purim") get awards-season buzz that changes their lives.

As his character in Guest's "A Mighty Wind" might ask: Wha' happened?

Willard, as sincere and circumspect in an interview as his on-screen characters are clueless and narcissistic, felt he was enjoying a "pretty good" career — then landed a role in Guest's 1996 mockumentary "Waiting for Guffman."

"God bless Chris Guest ... and I mean it sincerely," Willard said during a recent trip to New York, where he starred in wife Mary's play "Elvis and Juliet."

In "Guffman," Willard plays a travel agent who's never left his small town and talks openly about his penile reduction.

A mighty roleMost memorable of all, though: his performance in Guest's "Best in Show" as the broadcaster whose canine ken wouldn't fill a Chihuahua's brain — so he makes up things as he goes along such as: "And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten."

Roger Ebert suggested that he should get an Oscar nomination, and the Boston Society of Film Critics named him best supporting actor in 2000.

"He's obviously one of the funniest people, ever," said Guest, who met Willard almost 40 years ago when they did a play in New York, long before they worked together in 1984's "This is Spinal Tap."

"He's one of the great improvisers. And it's not as if you can just pick anyone to do these movies, and so he became one of the main people because he's one of the best at it," Guest added.

Willard remembers the first time he took direction from Guest, during an improvised scene in a Chinese restaurant. No one said anything for a while, and he figured that he should say SOMETHING. "So I said, `You know in China they'll bring a live monkey to the table and cut its head off so you can eat the brains.’"

While Willard's career dates to the '60s, when he was part of a comedy team with Vic Greco appearing on the old Ed Sullivan show, most people's memories of him go back to "Fernwood 2Nite," the '70s talk-show send-up in which he portrayed Martin Mull's dimbulb sidekick.

Willard, who received three Emmy nominations for playing the father-in-law of Robert Barone (Brad Garrett) on "Everybody Loves Raymond," also teamed with Mull (as his lover) on "Roseanne." His other recurring TV credits include "Mad About You" and "D.C. Follies." And for several years he's been doing skits on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

The only network show he ever co-hosted, "Real People," isn't well-remembered, he acknowledged, but Willard sounds happy to find out that he has a multicultural audience, citing a moment on the street when a couple of black guys asked, "Hey, weren't you in ‘How High’?"

Willard's improvisation and performance skills were honed with the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago as well as the groups Ace Trucking Company and The Committee.

But after all these years it still scares him to fly without the net of a script.

"When we start a movie now, it's `Oh, God, what am I going to say?'" he said, relaxing in his hotel suite with his stocking feet up on an ottoman. "So I don't know where it comes from, I don't know how you teach it."

In running improv workshops, he saw that students either got it or they didn't. The only instructions he offers: Get involved in the scene, stay in character, listen to the other person, and don't particularly try to be funny.

"It's like walking a tightrope. Don't try to do tricks on it. Just try to get across, and pretty soon the tricks will come."

A knack for improvisingSome of his talent stems from nature and nurture. He remembers relatives saying and doing wacky things, like his grandmother who once bought a corset that was too big but decided to wear it anyway — or the time she went to see a movie titled "Best Foot Forward," returned and said she saw "Here We Go Backwards."

"And I'm from Cleveland, which a lot of funny people seem to come from. Because it's sort of no-nonsense — I found my aunts and uncles would just see right through any pretense," Willard said. "My mother used to have a saying when she came out to visit us; she'd see someone dressed kind of fancy and she'd say: `Boy the things you don't see when you haven't got a gun.'"

Which sounds about as wonderfully jarring as the comment from Willard's mayor in the 1987 Steve Martin movie "Roxanne": "I would rather be with the people of this town than with the finest people in the world."

Or as hilariously mind-blowing as his news director in "Anchorman" telling the son who's always in trouble at school over the phone: "Put down the gun, and let the marching band go. We'll play it off as a prank."

It's gotten to the point now that his improv skills are expected.

"I've found in the last two years usually the producer — (or) whoever is the head person — will say, `Listen, feel free, you know if you want to put something in.' Which puts an extra burden on you, because when you're given free rein, from my experience, actors tend to kinda get off the track and get self-indulgent," Willard said. "So I usually say, `I kinda like what's written here.' I guess it's from going to Virginia Military Institute. I'm a good person to follow orders."

Before he attended VMI — a fact about Willard that may surprise people — he went to a military prep school because he was getting in minor scrapes ("things today that would almost be laughable").

Now a military school alumnus, Army veteran, Middle American and husband for 35 years with a 33-year-old daughter and 9-year-old grandson, Willard lives the part of the solid citizen that he at least looks like on screen.

That disparity between his stalwart appearance and his nutty comments serves as classic comedy.

"He kind of looks like a clean-cut Midwestern guy," Guest said, "except that he's actually from Mars."