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Comic actor Fred Willard of 'Best in Show' and 'Modern Family' dies at 86

Over the course of Willard's long career he made an art of dry humor that brought laughs in goofy, subtle and understated ways.
Image: Fred Willard
Actor Fred Willard attends the premiere of Disney's "Planes: Fire & Rescue" at the El Capitan Theatre on July 15, 2014 in Hollywood, Calif.Jason Kempin / Getty Images

Fred Willard, the comic actor considered by many a master of the mockumentary genre, died Friday at age 86.

Willard was best known for his roles in Christopher Guest films such as "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," and over the course of his long career he made an art of dry humor that brought laughs in goofy, subtle and understated ways.

His deep range lent itself to scene-stealing roles on sitcoms such as "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Modern Family." He even appeared as the only human character in the animated film "WALL-E," a first for a Pixar film.

"It is with a heavy heart that I share the news my father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old," Hope Willard tweeted on Saturday. "He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever."

Willard was one of Hollywood's busiest comedic actors with a career that lasted more than 50 years, playing clueless characters such as sidekick Jerry Hubbard on the satire "Fernwood 2 Night" in the 1970s. He recently finished filming the Netflix series “Space Force,” where he played actor Steve Carell’s father.

"Fred Willard was the funniest person that I've ever worked with. He was a sweet, wonderful man," Carrell said in a tweet.

From 2003 to 2005, Willard was nominated for three Emmy Awards for playing Hank on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” He was nominated a fourth time in 2010 for his recurring role as Frank Dunphy, the father of Ty Burrell’s Phil Dunphy, on “Modern Family.”

"Modern Family" cast members Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who play one of the most beloved gay couples on TV, expressed their condolences on social media.

"It was a privilege to have the great Fred Willard know my name. Rest In Peace Fred. You were funny in your bones," Stonestreet said.

"You will always be a true original and I am so honored that our lives intersected. No one will ever come close to replacing your genius," said Ferguson.

Right before coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders were put in place, late night show host Jimmy Kimmel had Willard return on his show every two weeks, on average, doing comedic sketches.

"There was no man sweeter or funnier. We were so lucky to know Fred Willard and will miss his many visits," Kimmel tweeted.

He also made dozens of appearances in sketches on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

In 2016, he joined an elite list of comedians and comic actors who have received the Johnny Carson Comedy Legend Award given to those who have left his or her own mark on the comedy world.

Michael McKean, his friend of more than 40 years and frequent collaborator in Guest films such as "This Is Spinal Tap," described Willard as "a great comic actor who had no competition because there was only one of him."

"I’m at a loss for words, a state Fred Willard never found himself in," he said in a tweet. "We were all so lucky. Goodbye, Fred."

A native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Willard attended Kentucky Military Institute for high school and Virginia Military Institute for college. Following college, he served in the Army and played baseball while he was stationed in Germany.

His comedy career picked up alongside partner Vic Grecco -- they appeared on numerous variety shows together. He further honed his comedic skills as a founding member of the Ace Trucking Company sketch/improv group and also worked with the Second City comedy troupe before rising to comedic acting fame in TV and movies.

Willard is survived by his daughter and son-in-law, Hope and Mitch Mulbarger, and his grandson Freddie. His wife Mary died in 2018.