Fred Willard, Comic Actor in ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ and ‘Modern Family,’ Dies at 86

“Thanks for the deep belly laughs Mr. Willard,” Jamie Lee Curtis tweets

Fred Willard

Fred Willard, comedic actor best known for “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman,” and, most recently as Phil Dunphy’s father on “Modern Family,” died Friday night of natural causes. He was 86.

“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,” his daughter Hope Mulbarger said in a statement. “We loved him so very much!”

Willard was a master at playing characters who weren’t the brightest of bulbs, a feat he perfected in Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap,” along with a number of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, including “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration.”

Guest’s wife, Jamie Lee Curtis, announced Willard’s passing on Twitter, writing, “How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard’s gifts. He is with his missed Mary now. Thanks for the deep belly laughs Mr. Willard.” (His wife of 50 years, Mary Lovell, passed away in 2018.)

The Ohio native broke into show business in the late 1950s when he met his future comedy partner Vic Grecco while performing a production of “Desperate Hours” at a local YMCA in New York. As the team of Willard & Grecco, they appeared on numerous variety show shows, including “The Dean Martin Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Tonight Show.”

After making his big-screen debut in the 1967 exploitation film “Teenage Mother,” Willard joined the famed improvisational theater troupe Second City, Chicago, and became a founding member of the Ace Trucking Company.

His big break came in ’77 when he earned the role announcer Jerry Hubbard on Norman Lear’s satirical soap opera “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and its spinoffs “Fernwood 2 Night,” “Forever Fernwood” and “America 2-Night.” Willard later reunited with his “Mary Hartman” costar Martin Mull, when he recurred as his romantic partner and eventual husband on “Roseanne.”

In addition to appearing in several of Guest’s ensemble mock-documentaries, Willard memorable roles in the two “Anchorman” films, “Silver Streak,” “Fun With Dick and Jane,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and “Fifty Shades of Black,” to name just a few.

He also hosted “Saturday Night Live,” had recurred on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” sits on the list of famous voices that can be heard on “The Simpsons,” and won a Daytime Emmy for his work on the CBS soap “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

“I’m at a loss for words, a state Fred Willard never found himself in. My friend for 40+ years, a great comic actor who had no competition because there was only one of him. We were all so lucky. Goodbye, Fred,” Willard’s frequent co-star and longtime friend Michael McKean said Saturday afternoon.