Modern Family star Fred Willard dies at 86

Kristine Tarbert
Senior Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer

Modern Family star and comedy master Fred Willard has died at the age of 86.

Willard, known for playing Phil Dunphy’s dad Frank, died on Friday evening in Los Angeles of natural causes at 86, his agent confirmed.

Fred Willard has died at the age of 86. Photo: AP

Fred Willard was an improv comedy master whose star shone brightest in the satire of writer-director Christopher Guest, playing a goofball so straight it wasn't always clear he was in on the joke.

In the 1996 film that launched him into the mainstream, Waiting for Guffman, Willard was a small-town amateur actor opposite Catherine O'Hara. With utter sincerity, the duo auditioned in matching tracksuits with a Taster's Choice commercial performed to the 1973 hit song Midnight at the Oasis. It killed.

The film became an instant comedy classic and earned Willard an American Comedy Award nomination and a Screen Actors Guild award nomination.

In a statement, his daughter Hope Mulbarger said: “My father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old. He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”

Tributes have also poured in for the comic, with Steve Carell calling him the “the funniest person” he has ever worked with.

His Modern Family co-star Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cam, wrote: “It was a privilege to have the great Fred Willard know my name. Rest In Peace Fred. You were funny in your bones.”

Meanwhile, Judd Apatow called Fred “pure joy”, while Jamie Lee Curtis also shared a tribute on Twitter.

Born September 18, 1939, Willard cultivated his wisecracking straight man persona as the son of a stern father who worked in a bank. He was raised middle class in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and fell in love with sketch comedy after seeing the 1950s vaudeville silliness of bandleader Spike Jones and the City Slickers.

Though Willard spent his formative years in military school, earning a graduate degree in English from Virginia Military Institute, his heart was always in show business.

After he spent his stint in the US Army stationed in Germany, he moved to New York in the early 1960s to train as an actor. In no time, he and a classmate were appearing as a comedy duo on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Around 1965, Willard moved to Chicago to spend a year training with the groundbreaking improv group The Second City. Then he returned to New York and co-founded his own troupe, the Ace Trucking Co, which spent years performing on high-profile TV variety shows, opening for Tom Jones in Las Vegas and eventually releasing a comedy album.

Along the way, Willard co-starred in an off-Broadway black comedy with a 20-year-old Guest, a connection that would later change the course of his career.

"I knew something was off when Fred started doing lines that weren't actually in the play to me," Guest said in a TV interview in 2007. "I didn't know what to make of it. I said to myself, 'You're different.'"

By 1977, Willard was appearing with Martin Mull as host of a short-lived parody talk show, Fernwood 2 Night, created by Norman Lear. That led to another brief hosting gig for the NBC reality series Real People.

A scene from Modern Family where Phil pays a visit to his dad. Photo: Getty

But it was Willard's mastery of the mockumentary, starting with the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap, that first earned him widespread notice. In that film, he played an Air Force officer trying to prove his hipster cred with a series of cringe-worthy jokes. And though it was years before the film reached cult status, Willard had discovered his place.

He spent the 1980s and 1990s bouncing around TV with a few notable recurring parts, including as Mull's gay partner in Roseanne. That same year, he appeared the Oscar-winning comedic short film Ray's Male Heterosexual Dance Hall.

In Guest's 2000 comedy Best in Show, Willard earned enduring success as an over-the-top dog show host. Willard's bone-headed - and improvised - interstitial remarks to his prim, British co-host became one of the highlights of the film. He won an American Comedy Award for the performance.

After that, Willard appeared in higher-profile film roles, in the 2004 Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and its 2013 sequel and as the CEO of the Buy 'n' Large Corp in the 2008 Oscar winning animated film WALL-E.

He spent three seasons on the hit CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond as the conservative middle-school vice principal Hank MacDougall, earning three Emmy Award nominations for the role. And in 2009, Willard began as an occasional guest star as Ty Burrell's father on the ABC series Modern Family, earning an Emmy nomination in 2010 for the role.

Fred earned an Emmy nomination in 2010 for his role on Modern Family. Photo: ABC

Willard would go on to appear in three more of Guest's mockumentaries, A Mighty Wind in 2003, For Your Consideration in 2006 and the Netflix film Mascots in 2016.

In 2012, he was arrested for suspicion of engaging in lewd act at an adult theater in Hollywood. But rather than hide behind a publicist, Willard tweeted a review of the X-rated film he was caught watching: Lousy film, but theater would make a terrific racquetball court. Then he went on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and cracked jokes about it. He was later exonerated of any wrongdoing.

In 2016, he formed a sketch group in a little theatre in North Hollywood called the MoHos that performs regularly around Los Angeles.

“That's always been my favourite thing: sketches," he told L.A. Weekly in 2016. "Because if the audience doesn't like something, it's over in four or five minutes and you go on to something new.”

With additional reporting by AAP.

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