Born: September 18, 1933;

Died: May 15, 2020.

RIGHT to the last, Fred Willard’s gift for improvisation impressed his fellow professionals.

On the set of his final television show, the Netflix comedy series, Space Force, Willard, who has died at the age of 86, spoke a few scripted words and then, encouraged by the series co-creator Greg Daniels and others, came up with an “incredibly funny story” off the top of his head, which was included in the finished scene.

“When he was done”, Daniels added, “the crew gave him a standing ovation, which I’ve never seen ...happen before”. Willard was, he added, “a comedy legend”.

Willard appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, from the sitcoms, Everybody Loves Raymond and Modern Family, to the mockumentary classic, This is Spinal Tap, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and the Pixar/Disney hit, Wall-E.

Acting isn’t always about the powerful, searing delivery of the soliloquy or about being able to cry at the drop of a script. Sometimes, it’s about reacting, about watching the action fly around you - and pulling exactly the required face; a look of horror, disgust or delight.

Willard was the master of reaction. It was entirely deserved that he found himself Emmy-nominated for his roles on Modern Family and Everybody Loves Raymond. Nor was it a surprise to anyone in the business that his amazing talent for comedy saw him land lead roles in the likes of 1996 mockumentary film classic, Waiting for Guffman.

The New Yorker once noted, “Willard is perfect playing those who are gloriously out of their depth.” One such character was Buck Laughlin, the dog-show announcer in Christopher Guest’s film Best In Show, (2000); he wondered why breeders did not want miniature schnauzers to be larger, believed that Christopher Columbus had captained the Mayflower, and thought that the perfect light-hearted comment to make as the terriers made their entrance was: “To think that in some countries these dogs are eaten.”

Perhaps Willard’s ability to deliver so many clever, nuanced, scene-stealing performances stemmed from the fact that he had a realistic distance from the business of acting. Indeed, he never set out to become an actor; he had always fancied himself as a baseball player.

Frederick Charles Willard Jr. was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the only child of Frederick Willard, who worked in finance, and Ruth Weinman. His father died and his mother remarried. “My father passed away when I was 12, so it was very difficult”, he later said. “But I was always the class clown. I don’t know why – maybe as an escape - I was sent away to military prep school.”

He later served in the army, and played for its baseball team. But that particular career never took off and he thought that showbusiness might be an interesting alternative.

In the late Fifties, he moved to New York and studied at the Showcase Theater in Manhattan then spent a year in Chicago with the Second City, the famous comedy improvisation troupe. He formed a comedy double act with partner, Vic Grecco, and they performed in Chicago’s coffee-houses until their talents were recognised with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The double act did not last but Willard continued to move, slowly, up the showbiz ladder. In 1966 he landed his first TV role in a Western sitcom Pistols ’n’ Petticoats, starring Ann Sheridan. But a year later his first film, Teenage Mother, was so awful that his character’s attempt to prevent an attempted sexual assault was booed by an audience at one screening.

He persevered, however, working in several off-Broadway productions up until the late Seventies, when he began to land lead roles. He married playwright Mary Lovell: they moved to Los Angeles and they had a daughter.

Willard ventured into the world of TV talk-show hosting What’s Hot, What’s Not (1985-1986), for which he earned a Daytime Emmy nomination.

His many later films included Fun With Dick and Jane (1977) and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). He played an Air Force colonel giving a heavy-metal band a tour of a military base in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984). He was also in A Mighty Wind (2003, pictured), another Guest mockumentary.

Meantime, the television roles kept on coming, from Laverne and Shirley to Roseanne and, more recently, Community.

All the time, he comfortably managed to play the uncomfortable; he calmly revealed his angry man, and he revealed great sensitivity in playing the thick-skinned clown.

Yet while he worked hard, he never took the industry too seriously.

“I guess I look like the perfect foolish person to be in charge of the entire Earth,” Willard joked of his character in Wall-E. He added: “It’s not a bad typecast, the goofy guy.” He was the first live-action character to appear in a Pixar movie; in Wall-E he played Shelby Forthright, the hapless CEO of the Buy N Large Corporation.

When asked what he felt was his greatest achievement, Willard did not cite his numerous awards and nominations. “It was”, he said, simply, “teaching my daughter to catch a fly ball”.

Fred Willard’s wife died in 2018. He is survived by his daughter, Hope.