The master of comedic clueless insincerity may have found his most earnest character yet, in the form of a 1968 Ford Bronco.
Over a career spanning nearly five decades, comic actor Fred Willard has excelled at portraying ever-smiling dolts, dunderheads, weasels and Teflon-slick bureaucrats, but for Planes: Fire & Rescue, the Disney sequel to the Cars spinoff Planes, he got a shot at playing a perfectly reasonable character with an admirable agenda, albeit one who's also an anthropomorphic car: as the Secretary of the Interior, Willard is an outdoorsy, nature-loving official more concerned with conservation than politics.
As the animated hit arrives today on Blu-ray and DVD, Willard tells Spinoff Online about improvising opposite fellow deadpan master John Michael Higgins, looks back at a vibrant career honing his distinctive comic persona, and promises a return to Modern Family sooner rather than later.
Spinoff Online: Another feather in your cap, another fun performance.
Fred Willard: It certainly was. Yeah, I'm always tickled when I'm asked to do anything with Disney or Pixar, so I was really very pleased when they called me in to do this. And they not only called me in once. They called me in a second time to work a scene with John Michael Higgins, so that was fun, and the finished product is so beautiful, We watched it first out at Disney before it was released and I was just amazed then. And then when they showed it in Hollywood, it was in 3-Dimensions, and I'm just in awe of what these animators do.
When you get a part like this, how much thought are you able to put into it or asked to put into it or allowed to put into it, or how much is it a spin on your comedy persona?
Well, I simply wanted my own voice, but of course, I was a politician, a bureaucrat, and I thought the model of the car was going to be kind of a sturdy, no-nonsense car that was coming in as the Secretary of the Interior, so it's kind of a rugged vehicle. It was almost like a Teddy Roosevelt and he was a no-nonsense man. He couldn't be swayed by John Michael Higgins' character with any foolishness. He just came right to the point. And then when the fires broke out, he was a hands-on guy, trying to save everybody, and it was so fun. There were some fun lines, and I think I did what they wanted. And I think the reason that me and John Michael Higgins worked together because they wanted some kind of an improvisational feel for a while, to play off of each other to see what would come out of it. And when I saw the finished product, I couldn't remember what we improvised and what had been written. And the most fun is when you get together at the first showing and you see all the other people in the movie – Ed Harris and Dane Cook and John Michael Higgins was there. It's great because suddenly you're part of this fraternity who did this movie, even though you weren't there physically together to do it.
What does it mean to you to have had such a lasting and vibrant career, pretty much since you broke through in Hollywood? You've been invited to practically every great television show that's been on in the past couple decades.
It's good. It's something that I look back on things I did and who I worked with. I think the very first TV show I did, I worked with Ann Sheridan – I mean, I'd just come out to Hollywood, and I look back at that now, I said, "My gosh. I was working with one of the screen idols." You just keep going. You just do it. And people talk about retiring – I think an actor retires after every job. You finished, it's not like you call the Head of Show Biz and say "That's it, I'm taking some time off." You're taking time off, and then the phone rings. And it usually rings just when you're about to leave town to go on vacation or just when you've been asked to do some little thing. And you have a job, and you say "Great!" But it's not like you're being asked to go to Pennsylvania and work in a coal mine for six months. It's usually something enjoyable.
Hearing your voice in a movie like this is always fun for the adults, but what's it like for you to have a parent say to their kid, "Hey, this guy was the Secretary of the Interior in Planes"?
That's fun. And I also did Wizards of Waverly Place, and I'm always amazed when kids would suddenly come up like "Oh, you were in Wizards of Waverly Place!" It was a show that I did for a friend of mine who was the producer. And I'm always amazed. People said ,"Oh, I remember you from Fernwood Tonight." And I look at them, and I say, "You couldn't be old enough to remember Fernwood Tonight!" But then they say, "Well, I was in junior high school." I think, in a way, I've been lucky that there was never a Fred Willard Show that ran for three or four years and then was canceled. You get too well known. It's very rare for an actor to be a big hit in a series. There's the exceptions like Kelsey Grammer – he's just gone from one series to another, and then he goes into dramatic work. That's really unique, that kind of career. But a lot of people, they disappear for years, and then suddenly, they come back. And now with TV Land or Me TV, these series come back and suddenly they're hits again: "That was a good series. It could have stayed on for 40 years if another series hadn't come along." It's nice when you get called to come on and do something.
You recently became a soap opera star. What was that like?
Yes, indeed I did! Well, I met the people who do The Bold and the Beautiful through some charity event. And then at the same time, I was doing Enter Laughing, a one-day reading of Carl Reiner's play, and we invited them and they came and they enjoyed it. And I got a phone call from the casting director. He said, "Would you like to be on The Bold and the Beautiful?" I said, "Well, I just did a pilot for NBC. I'm under contract to them. I'll think about it." And I forgot about it for weeks. And my wife kept saying, "You've got to call them back." I said, "Oh, they're going to be mad at me." So I finally called them back, and they said, "This is wonderful. We have a character who we've been talking about. He's the father of one of the stars, and he's coming over from Australia. If you'd like to do it, we can do three episodes." I said, "Great!" And they said, "We'll do it in two days." [Laughs]. And I said, "Well, this is wonderful!" As an actor, that's one of the ones you do from 10 in the morning and be done by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. And I enjoyed it. I found the actors to be incredibly beautiful and very serious – very good natured and very good actors, so it was a wonderful artistic experience. Then I went back and did two more, and then they called and wanted to know if they should write some more for me. And John McCook, wonderful guy, very supportive, he plays kind of a gruff head of his corporation. But he's got a great sense of humor, and he's fun to work with.
I think everybody eagerly looks forward to your appearances on Modern Family. Have you booked one or shot one that we're going to see any time soon?
Well, I was supposed to shoot one next week, but I'm going to New York to be in a stage version of Showboat at Lincoln Center, and so they've moved my date, I think, to a little later in November, which is fine. I always love doing that show.
Can you tease out a little bit about what your involvement's going to be?
I really never have any idea until I get the script. You know, my character lives in Florida, and they're in California. I did a couple back to back that were kind of a continuation, like a part one and part two. But I have no idea. First they call and ask for my availability. And then if I'm available, then they say, "Let's invent something." So it's usually something very interesting.
Ty Burrell's told me how he's been a longtime fan of your work and really wanted you to play his dad. What's been fun about developing your character playing opposite Ty?
I worked with Ty a year before this series started on a show that Kelsey Grammer and Patty Heaton starred in called Back to You. I was a sportscaster and Ty was kind of the roving reporter. I didn't know anything about him but he said he'd been on Broadway. Our station would send him out to do these on-the-spot live shots, be it in a rainstorm or electrical storm, and I was just amazed at his physical humor. He had that kind of dim-witted humor but very earnest. I would just sit and laugh, and the producers said to me, "The only thing funnier than watching Ty do his scene is sitting watching you laughing at him, Fred." And I said "Well, it just makes me laugh." I've been on the show several times – he's won so many awards and he's still so down to earth and such a regular guy. He lives in Salt Lake City. He's a no-frills guy, so it's really fun to be around him. And the whole cast is so welcoming. When you come on the show, you feel like the new kid in class all the time, but you don't get that feeling on this show. It's, "Oh, Fred! Gosh, we've missed you. Thanks so much for coming back!" And it's really fun.
Tell me about the zone in which several of the characters you've created exist. There's a certain comedy persona that you've developed that's specific to you. Can you put your finger on who the variations are on this type of guy that you found you excel at?
Well, I started out doing improv with this comedy sketch school for several years, and there were some very colorful characters in it. And I usually end up playing the boss, the cop, the principal of the school. I was always kind of the strict thing, and then I got in with Fernwood Tonight, and I was kind of the sidekick to Martin Mull. And I found he had this funny side, this kind of clueless character who thought he was a little more important than he was, and those were the roles I really liked: kind of clueless characters. Because in real life, I take things very seriously. I'm always worried about something. And I so much admire the people who just brush everything off and don't have a worry in the world. I remember I was in the Army. It was back in the early days when you were in the draft. We had to camp out in the woods one night, and I took my own pillow out and I had bug spray. And one of the guys was laying down. He had the air mattress. He was just wearing his shorts and mosquitoes would bite him, and he wouldn't even brush the mosquitoes away. He says "Let 'em bite. They're not going to hurt me." Nothing bothered him. And I always wished I could be like that, so I love to play characters like that: who say the wrong thing, who say something earnestly – and I've always been fascinated with people who double-talk, who say things insincerely, who kind of justify something by double-talking. "We'll look into that. We're certainly staying on top of that. If I insulted anybody, I'm very sorry." That sort of thing, the double talk. Alan Arkin once said of me, "Fred Willard and John Wayne are two people who can talk and say something, and you don't understand a word they said." I took that as a compliment from Alan Arkin.
Is there a type of role or something that you haven't gotten the chance to do that you're still itching for the opportunity?
I'd like to be kind of a heroic figure that decides to save the day, to save the world, and someone else comes in and saves it instead but he thinks he's done it himself. You should write something like that. He goes out to solve a crime, thinks he solved the crime, but meanwhile, it solved itself. I think Red Skelton used to play roles like that. And growing up, I was fans of guys like that, Red Skelton and all those kind of dunderheads. Guys like that influenced me to become an actor, and probably in my background influenced me in the way I do some roles and the roles I take.
I would pay to see you in something like that.
Good. I'll write it up, and maybe you'll be an investor in it. All we need is a couple of million to get it off the ground.