Actor/Comedian Fred Willard from ABC's Modern Family sits down with TV STORE ONLINE to chat about his early career in exploitation film and the films of Christopher Guest.
TV STORE ONLINE: Are you surprised that people recognize you from the Jerry Gross exploitation film, TEENAGE MOTHER ?
WILLARD: Well, I think people are more interested in it, because that originally came to light, when I appeared on The Conan O'Brien Show. They hunted the film down, sent me a copy of it, and then they showed a clip of it on the show. It's an early exploitation film. It's an exploitation film, cause it shows an actual baby's birth. I played the high school coach. I really have no memory of doing the film actually, but I can remember going to see the film once it was done out on Staten Island. My wife and I took a ferry out, and saw the film. I can't remember what I got paid on the film, I can't remember anything about the director of the film, even. It was my first movie.
TV STORE ONLINE: On that note.. You also worked on another exploitation film called CHESTY ANDERSON U.S.N . Didn't you work with nutzoid actor Timothy Carey on that film?
WILLARD: Yes, I did that movie. I have no clue though how I got involved with that project. I think I played an undercover detective didn't I? I thought it was a good idea. Didn't the actress who played Chesty Anderson do some Russ Meyer movies? I was sort of a fan of Timothy Carey. I had originally saw him in EAST IN EDEN . He was a very nice guy. He was also very eccentric. He talked really fast. He was quite an interesting character for sure.
TV STORE ONLINE: You grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Growing up, did you have any experiences with any of the amazing cultural things that came from there like the television and radio personalities Alan Freed or Ghoulardi?
WILLARD: Yes, I did. As a kid, I used to love to listen to "Moondog" on the radio in Cleveland. It was cool, it seemed like big record companies would introduce their records in Cleveland. Back then, you'd look at the major cities across the USA and see their top ten records list, and it was always different in Cleveland. There were theaters in Cleveland that I used to go to during the weekend, and see some of the country western shows. I love country music. I just learned that Elvis actually played Cleveland around fifty-five or fifty-six as well, and I have no idea how I would've missed that. I've always been a huge Elvis fan.
I think Ghoulardi was after my time in Cleveland. Strangely enough, my wife and I are good friends with his ex-wife now. Of course, Ghoulardi was Ernie Anderson. He is the father of the film director, Paul Thomas Anderson. He did that movie BOOGIE NIGHTS . But we met Ernie on several occasions when he was alive and he was a nice guy. He had this gruff voice, like a chain smokers voice. Over the years I've met a lot of people, that grew up in Cleveland who have told me about how influential he was for them.
TV STORE ONLINE: Growing up in Cleveland... What were you like as a kid?
WILLARD: I was just a normal kid. I loved baseball. By the time I got to be a junior in high school my parents sent me off to a military prep school. So I wasn't around Cleveland too much at that point. But when I was a kid, I saw something in Cleveland that really influenced me. I saw Spike Jones on stage in Cleveland. And I had never seen comedy like this before. It was all new to me. I remember musicians on stage, and they'd do take-offs of popular songs. There was this one bit they did with a women on stage with a harp. She sat their the whole show and never played it, and no one on stage drew any attention to her. I couldn't believe just how hip this type of humor was. It was cutting edge for back then. Just recently, I got to meet Spike Jones son at this year's Emmy Awards, and I got to tell him about seeing his dad back in Cleveland all those years back.
WILLARD: Yes, for sure. I can remember back in grade school we did this variety show. And I put together a bunch of guys who played instruments, and we did this type of Spike Jones show. I didn't play any instruments though. We did The Case Of The Missing Key. The missing key.. Being a musical key. But seeing Spike Jones.. He was a direct influence and it's probably the whole reason I decided to go into show business.
TV STORE ONLINE: I know you're a big baseball fan. Having grown up in Cleveland... Do you still follow the Cleveland Indians?
WILLARD: Well, I've kinda stopped following them for now. I was invited back to Cleveland for the 100th anniversary game. I went back to the new Jacob's Field, and I was impressed. I have so many memories of the old Memorial Stadium, cause as a kid, my dad used to take me to games all the time. I'd wait after the games to get player's autographs. But anyway, so the current team owner is very nice, and he invited my wife and I to have dinner with him in the stands. It was a night game. And he explained to us that he had to get rid of some of the players because of money issues. Then he announced to the fans, that the team wouldn't be competitive for five years. So I said, 'How can you do that to the fans?' Every season, the fans have to expect that their home team has a good chance of winning. So I gave up. The last time the Cleveland Indians won a World Series was in 1948.
During this 100th anniversary, I got to meet a pitcher that played on the '48 team, Steve Gromek. I was so thrilled to meet him. And after I met him, we stayed in contact. Eventually he passed away, and his family contacted me, and sent me a video of the 100th anniversary event. And I wrote them back, thanking them, and told them, that '48 will probably be the last time the Indians ever win the World Series. So I've really just given up on the Indians.
WILLARD: Sure. I wanna say that the first movie I ever saw was SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS . My favorite comedy of all time, is THE COURT JESTER . I'm a big fan of horror movies as well. I can still remember the first horror film I saw as a kid. It was FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN . I can remember bugging my parents to take me to it, and they wouldn't. One day we were driving to see my Grandma, and they stopped in front of our local movie theater and they dropped me off and said, "We'll pick you up in 2 hours". I can still so vividly remember that day. Over the years, I've loved films like THE EXORCIST  and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE . In fact, I worked with Tobe Hopper on a film he did called SALEM'S LOT . Tobe Hopper is a great director. He was very sweet, and I got to know him socially. He's a real talent, he does an a amazing job at getting scary things on film.
TV STORE ONLINE: After getting out of school you went into the military. That seems like something very out of character for you to have done?
WILLARD: Laughing....Well it was in the days of the draft, and I served two years. I was stationed in Fort Riley Kansas, and in Oklahoma at Fort Sill. It was an interesting experience, cause you get to meet a big cross section of people. You learn a lot about human nature. You meet all types of guys. Guys who graduated from Harvard, and then guys that didn't have a brain in their head. But they were all funny. I was stationed in Germany for a while as well. I got to play on the baseball team there, and I saw Berlin. I've got a lot of great photos of those days. I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I should've though. I really think that a draft should be in place now. I think everyone should spend at least one year in the military, cause you get so much discipline. It would clear up a lot of the problems we have today I think...
WILLARD: Well, once I got to New York City I went to acting school. I made some friends, and we started writing jokes, and we did some comedy shows together. We did The Ed Sullivan Show even. After a while we broke up, and my agent got me a audition for Second City. I was really nervous, cause I really hadn't done any improvisation before. So I really had to force myself down to that audition, cause I didn't think I could do it. I had NO experience. The funny thing about this audition was that I actually auditioned with Robert Klein, and he was hilarious. So they offered me a spot at Second City Chicago. I told them I'd think about it. So I called a friend of mine in Chicago, who owned a book store, and I asked her, "Is Second City still hip?" And she said, "Oh God yes..." So after that I moved to Chicago, and I found that I could improvise. It was a lot of fun, I stayed a year, and that was the end of it. I didn't improve again, until Christopher Guest asked me to be in WAITING FOR GUFFMAN . And since then, I've been back for a few things at Second City here and there.
TV STORE ONLINE: Where do you think your comic nuances come from?
WILLARD: I think from two things. When I first moved to New York City I worked in a credit office. I was instantly amused by the business mentality. And also, when I was in the army, the mentality of people doing things for no reason. Doing things just because you're ordered to do it. I've been amused by people that make up senseless rules. I've always been fascinated with the 'boss' type. I love to observe people as well. People always tell me that I'm quiet. I'm really just observing.
WILLARD: One day I was sitting at home and my phone rang. It was a guy named, George Slaughter. I remembered his name from Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In [1968-73]. So he told me, he was a fan of mine. He was watching me with Martin Mull on Fernwood 2 Nite . He told me he was doing a new show called Real People were they'd go out and interview crazy and eccentric people, and they wanted me to ask them straight questions. The first season, I did six stories. And after that, I didn't really wanna do any more. I just didn't think it was as cutting edge as I originally thought it was gonna be. So I Quit. Then, I started kicking myself, cause the show got super popular a couple years after I left. Then I stumbled onto this story about an old one armed baseball player, named Pete Gray. He played baseball during World War One. I read this story about him, and he was still alive and living in a little town in Pennsylvania. I called George Schlatter up, cause I thought this story was perfect for Real People. To make a long story short, Pete Gray didn't want anything to do with the show, but George convinced me to come back to the show, and I signed on part time for two seasons.
TV STORE ONLINE: Of all the Christopher Guest films you've done.. Do you have a favorite film or character?
WILLARD: Yes, my favorite film is the first one, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. But, character wise, I'd say my two favorites are my characters in BEST IN SHOW . It was a take on.... It was a spin off on Joe Garagiola the old baseball player. Then of course, the "Wha Happened Guy" from A MIGHTY WIND . My wife and I came up with the look of that guy. It was my wife's idea to dye my hair blonde. I actually went in to audition for that wearing a Zoot Suit that I actually bought at a trendy upscale shop in Cleveland. And I thought he should have a earring, but Christopher Guest said, "No". And by the time FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION  came around, Christopher suggested my character have an earring. So you see, if you want to impose something into a character, you have to make the director think it was his idea.
TV STORE ONLINE: Where does the Wha Happened Guy comes from?
WILLARD: Well, Guest told me he was a guy that managed musicians, or a former club owner. I thought about it, and I thought it would be fun if he was a guy that did a television series for one year that no one saw or was forgotten, but he thinks that everyone's seen...Wha Happened?...
WILLARD: Very nice. I really admire those guys so very much. Guest is a genius. He's the kinda guy you'd love to hang out with. He's a genius in film, and in the music he does. When we were doing GUFFMAN, I'd try to explain to him what I was gonna do improve wise, and he would look at me, and say, "Fred, you generally don't wanna know what the other person is gonna do that you're improving with, but in your case, I wanna know".. laughing... I get nervous when I'm doing improvisation. But for Guest it comes from his gut. Someone told me that Guest said in an interview once, that "Fred comes from another planet." Really, it's Guest that's from someplace else, he's just not from this earth. He's a genius.
TV STORE ONLINE: One of my favorite films of all time that I grew up on is MOVING VIOLATIONS . How you'd get involved in that project?
WILLARD: Oh my god...That's a film that was ahead of it's time. It came out just before the first oil crisis. I remember when it came out, people were roller skating to work...I got involved with the director of MOVING VIOLATIONS cause he was involved with one of my partners from my improvisation comedy group, Ace Trucking Company. I played "The Doc". In fact, the writer took that one scene of myself with Wendie Jo Sperber at the Repair Shop from a sketch we actually wrote for improvisation. They actually tried to get me to audition for it. I told them no, and said, "Look I'm not gonna audition for you with a scene I wrote!" So they just gave me the part. It was a fun production. It was a funny and crazy film. There's that one really great scene were we're all running down the streets of Los Angeles, being chased by like two hundred police.
TV STORE ONLINE: You've done so many projects with Martin Mull... Can you talk about your chemistry together?
WILLARD: Well, that goes back to Fernwood 2 Nite. They wanted me for the show, and I really didn't wanna do it. I was just busy with some other things. But the producers convinced me to just sit in for the week. I had first seen Martin on stage in Los Angeles when he opened up for my friend Robert Klein, and I was blown away by his act. He's got this amazing dry humor. So after a week of sitting in, I really discovered that I enjoyed it. So I went to the producer, who was of course, Norman Lear, and I was on the show.
Originally the concept was for my character to be a Ed McMahon type, but after a few tries the producers decided that it just wasn't working. So they decided to put us together side by side. It was then that we started to play off of each others comedy. I would say something stupid, and he would just stop. He's a very generous comedian. And too this day, I'm a huge fan of his. I love being around him. Every time we get the chance to do something, it's just so wonderful. Oh..and Martin is also an amazing musician too!
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you prefer television work or movie work?
WILLARD: TV work is a lot easier of course. But all work is great. Film does give you a sort of immortality however. TV Shows tend to disappear. I still get approached by fans of the Wu Tang Clan because I worked on that movie HOW HIGH .
TV STORE ONLINE: How does it feel when you get nominated for an Emmy Award?
WILLARD: Great. I've never taken it too serious. It's just an honor to attend. But this past year I was nominated for appearing on ABC's Modern Family. And I really thought I was gonna win it, but they gave it too Neil Patrick Harris. We'll try again next year maybe... Being nominated is great.
TV STORE ONLINE: You've had so many wonderful supporting roles. Do you think you've gotten all the roles you should have or wanted? Do you think you could alone carry a feature film or television series in a lead role?
WILLARD: Yes, I have always wanted too. But on the other hand. Even if you have a television series that runs for a few years then get's canceled, then you have to suffer the "Whatever happened to that guy?" thing. I'm getting older, and I'm finding that I don't wanna work that hard any more. Remember when I did that show with Kelsey Grammar called Back To You [2007-08]? We did 18 episodes, and all the reviews said I was under-used. Then it disappeared and it's barely remembered now. When I was doing Everyone Loves Raymond [1996-2005], I worked with an actor named Chris Elliot. And we had a very interesting discussion that I think will answer your question. We were talking about this and that and he told me that he was just offered his own show but that he turned it down. When I asked him why he would do that, he said, he was scared it would get canceled and it would be forgotten. He said, not having his own show meant that at least he could continue on working on a regular basis...
TV STORE ONLINE: Well, I would totally agree with that statement. But.. Doesn't that frustrate you?
WILLARD: At times, Yes. But other times, I'm just happy to be working too. There are spells were I don't do anything. Then there are times where I'm very busy. I've taken the easy road so many times. I've came up with great ideas for projects, and then someone would say, "that's stupid", and I'd give up on it. So throughout my career, I've been lacking tenacity. Over the years, I've written film scripts, and television pilots. But I haven't done too much with these ideas. I wrote a movie a few years ago, that I really loved about a guy that goes down to a fantasy baseball camp and befriends Mickey Mantle. I thought it was a funny script. But then Mantle died. A friend of mine is trying to convince me to do it but with Pete Rose. But it's just not the same. I've got a comedy that I wrote a while back about triathletes as well. Maybe I'll do something with those soon. I don't know.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung