In each of the preceding three comedies directed by Christopher Guest, Willard was one of an improvisational cast of dozens, but he flat-out stole the show: in Waiting for Guffman as the small-town travel agent whose true passion was community theater; in Best in Show as the clueless dog-show commentator with a penchant for unhinged random observations ("And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten," he muses at one point), and in A Mighty Wind as the washed-up comic who thinks his venerable catch phrase, "Wha' happened?," is the height of hilarity.
The people in this theater aren't the only ones who think that a Fred Willard character mistakenly believing he's funny is the funniest thing imaginable.
Another is Ricky Gervais. The English actor plays a studio executive in For Your Consideration, which opens tomorrow and is about a profoundly bad movie called Home for Purim that inexplicably starts to get Oscar buzz. Christopher Guest (who met Willard when they both were in the cast of the 1969 Off-Broadway production of Jules Feiffer's Little Murders) says, "Ricky told me he had never met Fred, and the first time he saw him on the set, Fred was turning away from him, talking to someone, and it made Ricky laugh. He just saw part of Fred's shoulder."
Sitting in a hotel suite and chatting with Willard the day after the screening is an odd experience. In some ways he resembles his characters: not only the Guest roles, but their progenitor, Jerry Hubbard, the affable and clueless sidekick Willard inhabited on the old talk-show spoof Fernwood 2-Nite.
He has the same heartland handsomeness (wearing a tan sportcoat and a flowered tie today, he looks like the No. 1 salesman in a town's No. 2 auto dealership), the same willingness to flash a big grin, a similarly open and friendly patter. But he's seriously dialed down. If Willard's characters are 11s (he was with Guest in This Is Spinal Tap, as well), in person he is a 4 1/2.
And while the guys he plays think they're God's gift to humor, he, like many a comic, is filled with self-doubt. "I love playing guys who have no worries, no thoughts, who would just say anything," he says. "I live vicariously through those characters. I love to be those clueless characters because in real life I worry about a lot of things. It's kind of a battle to keep a good sense of humor.
"On Fernwood 2-Nite, we had an episode where one of the guests on the show was me, playing myself. So through trick photography I was on the show both as Jerry and Fred Willard. I watched at home and I thought, 'I don't like myself. I love Jerry Hubbard.' "
Willard comes honestly by both his all-American-kidder persona and his gloom. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside of Cleveland, the only child of parents he describes as "not fun people." His father died unexpectedly when Fred was 11. "It was just before Christmas, not to bring anyone down, and he was buried - it sounds sad - on Christmas Eve," Willard says.
An unsympathetic stepfather entered the picture, and by mutual consent Willard was sent to military school. He went on to Virginia Military Institute, where he was on the varsity baseball team, but came to accept that his dream of playing ball professionally was not going to happen. After two years in the Army, he enrolled in acting school in New York, and in due time started a comedy team with a classmate, Vic Grecco.
It was the early '60s, a sort of golden age of deadpan comedy duos - Bob and Ray, Nichols and May, Wayne and Shuster - and Grecco and Willard had some success, appearing on the Ed Sullivan, Tonight and Merv Griffin shows, and in night clubs such as the hungry i. That led to a call from the most prestigious comedy improv group of all, Chicago's Second City, where Willard's fellow cast members included comics David Steinberg and Robert Klein.
He eventually moved to the West Coast and formed the Ace Trucking Company, a troupe still spoken of with reverence by comedy aficionados. "Fred was the linchpin of the group," Guest says. "He was so charismatic to watch and he was so funny. He was the funniest straight man I'd ever seen, but he wasn't a straight man."
If you key Fred Willard into the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), you will find a rather remarkable 226 credits, which actually represent even more than that, since Willard's several years hosting Real People and his recurring roles on Fernwood 2-Nite, Everybody Loves Raymond, Mad About You, Roseanne, Ally McBeal and Sister, Sister count as one credit each. He has also appeared in such films as Silver Streak, Roxanne, The Wedding Planner, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Date Movie, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
He's working more now than ever - imdb.com lists seven movies in the pipeline - because he's a dependable supporting player who brings with him a whole bunch of comic goodwill. But only in an improvised setting does he make you laugh till you can't breathe.
"In scripted situations, he doesn't get a chance to show the gift that he's got that nobody else has," Guest says. "He has this Fred energy, which is not like anyone else's in the world. Fred is from another place. Unfortunately, we don't know where that is."
Willard appreciates the opportunity Guest has given him. "I really get out of myself in those parts - it frees me up," he says.
"People are always giving me DVDs of things they've done. They say they're 'Chris Guest-style mockumentaries.' And I watch them, and I see immediately what's wrong. The characters are all letting you know they're being funny. It's tongue-in-cheek. I think a foreigner could come in and watch a Chris Guest movie and think it was completely serious."
There is nothing tongue in cheek about Fred Willard. "The characters I play are nothing like me," he says. "I am the complete opposite. My wife has a cartoon up on the refrigerator. A couple is in bed. The wife is reading The Joy of Living. The husband is reading Death Is One Step Away. The caption is 'Sparkles and the Prince of Darkness.'
"Last week I did the Tonight show. The audience was in hysterics, everyone said I did great. When we were driving home, I said, 'It wasn't that good. I don't want to watch it.'
"My wife said: 'Sparkles and the Prince of Darkness.' "