From San Jose Mercury News
By Mark de la Vina
January 10, 2017
“And it was all because we sort of tracked him down, showed up to some shows he did in L.A. and were this little festival of nobodies who asked if he’d come and do this show,” said Cole Stratton, one of the three creators of Sketchfest. “It was clear he wasn’t doing it for the money.”
Willard pulled together a group of improv performers dubbed the Fred Willard Hollywood Players for that early Sketchfest. And the veteran actor, who has also had a recurring role in TV’s “Modern Family,” has established himself as a festival regular. His more memorable moments include last year’s special screening and tribute to Christopher Guest’s ensemble comedy “Waiting for Guffman”; reading from Burt Reynolds’ tell-all memoir for his contribution to Celebrity Autobiography; and reuniting with Martin Mull for an homage to their seminal talk-show parody “Fernwood Tonight.”
So it’s only fitting that this “American comedy treasure,” as Sketchfest co-founder Janey Varney calls him, should get his own special night. The SF Sketchfest Tribute to Fred Willard at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre on Jan. 22 will feature Guest, who also directed Willard in “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind”; comedian Robert Klein, who performed with Willard in the famed improv troupe Second City in the mid 1960s; and Laraine Newman, who was in the cast of “Saturday Night Live” when Willard hosted the show in 1978. Sketchfest regular Kevin Pollak will serve as moderator.
“I have to take all this with a grain of salt,” Willard said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “It makes me a little uneasy. Plus, you realize the times you were up for a part and you were turned down.”
Though he declined such roles as the reluctant Ted Striker in “Airplane!” the 77-year-old Willard has made an indelible impression, often playing inquisitive yet clueless observers apt to blurt out the most inappropriate comments. In the late ’70s, he played the oblivious talk-show sidekick Jerry Hubbard in “Fernwood Tonight.”
And in “Waiting for Guffman,” he played one half of a travel agent tandem (with Catherine O’Hara) who fancied themselves ace performers. The role established Willard as a key component in Guest’s unofficial company of actors, who would often improvise and, much to the delight of viewers, deliver some of the funniest, most unsettling exchanges.
“Getting those parts in the Christopher Guest movies was the second biggest helper to my career after ‘Fernwood,’ ” Willard said. “Especially ‘Best in Show.’ ” In that film, Willard plays Buck Laughlin, an obliviously inappropriate and inept color commentator of a dog show.
Willard was a member of the hallowed Second City, the influential Chicago improvisational comedy team that over the years has featured the likes of Alan Arkin, John Belushi, Tina Fey, John Candy and Stephen Colbert. And before that, he had performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“You know, when I started, there was a phase where I wanted to be a cowboy star,” Willard said. “I didn’t want to do deep, serious parts.”
But comedy remained his first love.
“I loved Bob Hope and the way he would turn to the camera and break the fourth wall,” Willard said. “And Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton and Danny Kaye. Comedy always came easier for me. But I would have loved to have been an action hero.”
Contact Mark de la Vina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Presents: A Tribute to Fred Willard
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22
Where: Marine’s Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco
Tickets: $35; www.sfsketchfest.com
Festival details: Jan. 12-29 at various San Francisco venues, including Cobb’s Comedy Club, Alamo Drafthouse, Castro Theatre, Marines’ Memorial Theatre, Swedish American Hall; $17-$75 (prices vary per event); www.sfsketchfest.com