LOS ANGELES (CBS News/CBS SF) — Beloved comedic actor and gifted improviser Fred Willard has died at the age of 86, according to a statement released by his daughter.
Willard’s daughter Hope confirmed his passing to CBS News.
“My father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old,” she said in a statement. “He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”
The cause of death was not released.
Willard had over 300 acting credits to his name, according to IMDB, including a role in the upcoming show “Space Force” starring Steve Carell. Carell tweeted on Saturday that Willard was the “funniest person I’ve ever worked with. He was a sweet, wonderful man.”
Williard was a comic actor and improviser who got his start in the late 1960s as part of a comic duo with Vic Grecco. The pair appeared on such notable television programs as “The Dean Martin Show,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and “The Tonight Show.” Willard would later work with the Chicago-based comedy collective Second City before co-founding the improvisational comedy outfit the Ace Trucking Company with Michael Mislove and Bill Saluga..
That precursor to such ensemble comedy groups as the cast from National Lampoon radio show and Saturday Night Live would perform sketches “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” over fifty times and appeared regularly on “This is Tom Jones.”
Willard would rise to greater fame in the late 1970s as a member of the cast to Martin Mull’s left-field “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” spin-offs “Fernwood 2 Night” and “America 2 Night,” playing Mull’s sidekick Jerry Hubbard.
He would also serve as one of the hosts on the nationally televised NBC talk show “Real People” from 1979 to 1984, but Willard continued to have steady work as a comic actor. A brief appearance in Rob Reiner’s groundbreaking mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” would lead to Willard being a regular ensemble member in writer/director Christopher Guest’s acclaimed comedies “Waiting For Guffman” and “Best In Show,” which led to his nomination for multiple supporting actor awards.
Willard was also nominated for Emmy awards for his guest appearances on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Modern Family.” He kept working in film through his last role in 2016 and made a steady string of television appearances, both acting and doing voiceovers for animated shows.
Willard married his wife Mary in 1968 and they stayed together until her passing in 2018. He is survived by their daughter Hope and grandson Freddie.
Following news of his death, a number of actors and former collaborators tweeted about Willard’s passing. Jamie Lee Curtis, the wife of Christopher Guest was among the first to pay tribute.
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. Best in Show (7/11) Movie CLIP – Judging the Hounds (2000) HD https://t.co/wPrbk9VjWI via @YouTube
— Jamie Lee Curtis (@jamieleecurtis) May 16, 2020
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.
— Michael McKean (@MJMcKean) May 16, 2020
There was no man sweeter or funnier. We were so lucky to know Fred Willard and will miss his many visits https://t.co/joHM39o8k4
— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) May 16, 2020
Such a sad day. We’ve lost #FredWillard and he will be missed. He was in our “Aristocrats” and killed. He’ll always be “Fernwood Tonight” to me, inventing modern comedy with #MartinMull. Fred never winked, he played the comedy pure. Genius. Perfect. pic.twitter.com/AZ0IrIrQyA
— Penn Jillette (@pennjillette) May 16, 2020
RIP Fred Willard ..you were incomparable
— Henry Winkler (@hwinkler4real) May 16, 2020