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October 28, 2013

Best In Show: Fred Willard In Anything, Including Animal Welfare

Fred Willard

Fred Willard, says Christopher Guest, ‘has the patent on characters who are comfortable in their stupidity.’

When you sit down to watch any of the Christopher Guest mockumentary films—from his first, This Is Spinal Tap, continuing with Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, and the others—you can feel absolutely guaranteed that the movie about to unspool will be resolutely fun, fanciful and funny.

Often laugh-out loud funny, to the extent where any randomly-selected scenes from those flicks could qualify for a highlight reel of the ten or 20 most hilarious moments committed to celluloid.

But part of what accounts for those comedic pinnacles is the peerless, wonderfully absurdist sensibility that courses through the Guest oeuvre.

I mean, we don’t really believe that Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Guest himself are the lunkhead members of a heavy metal band, despite the head-banging veracity that fuels Spinal Tap.  

Fred Willard on ‘Animals and Manners,’ from PETA’s 25th anniversary gala

On some fundamental level, we don’t absolutely accept that Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy or Parker Posey—highly gifted and accomplished actors in real life—are the marginally-competent rubes starring in the half-baked community theater production at the center of Waiting For Guffman.

And while watching Best In Show, which provides a fractured glimpse into the dotty world of dog shows, we don’t particularly think John Michael Higgins and McKean are a flamboyantly gay couple showing a Shih Tzu. Or that Fred Willard really is a broadcast commentator who’s elevated clueless buffoonery to a new level—though in that capacity, he does seem credibly uninterested in the dogs, or animals generally.

In Willard’s case, as it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth—he’s long lent his talents to such animal welfare organizations as Farm Sanctuary, PETA, and Actors And Others For Animals.

“I’ve always loved animals,” Willard said early in a Sept. 18 Talking Animals interview, launching into a story that might have yielded decidedly mixed feelings toward animals for someone else.

Fred Willard crafts his PETA ‘Animal Birth Control’ spot

“The only dog I ever had, I was a little boy and had a cocker spaniel that I called Bingo, and I loved him. But we lived in the city, and he ran across the street one day and I don’t know how he survived—he ran right under a car.

“My Dad said ‘No, we have to send him away.’ So we sent him off with a family that had a farm. We lived in Cleveland Ohio, and this was miles out of town. I asked them ‘Can I visit him every weekend?’ They said ‘Oh, yes.’ I never did visit him, but I remember him as a cute little puppy, and I think he was probably much happier out on a farm.”

Several decades later—Willard is pushing 75—he’s apparently not only no worse for wear seeing the family dog abruptly exiled, but he does genuinely seem devoted to animals and animal welfare.

Our Talking Animals conversation happened several days before he was to perform at a major benefit for Actors And Others For Animals, a Hollywood-based organization advocating to significantly reduce pet overpopulation and otherwise improving life for pets and the people who live with them—often putting their money where their agendas are by helping underwrite spay-neuter procedures and other veterinary treatment for folks grappling with economic and other struggles that challenge their ability to  care for their animals.

It’s virtually impossible to keep track of emerging animal organizations, which pop up nearly as often as a new Subway location, but Actors and Others For Animals is hardly a greenhorn group.

Some memorable scenes from Best in Show

 “In the early ‘70s,” Willard explained,  “the actor Richard Basehart and his wife were driving down the freeway and saw someone throw a puppy out the window, and they were so incensed they decided to form this organization. That was long before I got involved. I’ve only been involved the last three or four years. It’s a wonderful organization—anything that helps animals is great.”

Indeed, spanning its 40-plus year existence, Actors And Others For Animals has assisted pets and those who love them in all kinds of ways, perhaps most significantly in the way they have loudly and effectively lobbied for spay and neuter—long before, as they note, those words had entered the lexicon of animal lovers, and others.

Their history extends so far back that Actors And Others affected fundamental change in how shelter animals were euthanized: at the time, in the ‘ 70s, this was handled in Los Angeles shelters by the animal being placed in a decompression chamber. Feeling certain there must be a more humane method, Actors And Others advocated for a euthanasia injection instead, funding a pilot project that was deemed so successful it was adopted by other shelters in the area, then elsewhere in California, then widening out across the country.

Over the ensuing years, the organization has managed to bring about all sorts of other change, chiefly through dint of the influence and star power of its leadership—its Board of Directors includes Lily Tomlin and Betty White—and financial resources, generated by such events as “Celebrity Best In Show.”

That’s the major fundraiser that Willard was preparing to appear at prior to our chat, in which it was greatly anticipated that we would reprise his Best In Show role as Buck Laughlin in the 2000 film.

“Yes,” Willard confirmed about the benefit, “along with the actor Jim Piddock, my co-host there. We’re going to judge these celebrities’ dogs, and pick out the best ones. Best in show—which one is the most lovable, most good looking, whatever—though I have a feeling every dog is going to get some kind of award.”

Christopher Guest on Fred Willard

As any true comedy aficionado will certify, Willard has long been considered one of the funniest people on the planet, from serving as Martin Mull’s sidekick on Fernwood 2Night in the ‘70s to his Emmy-nominated recurring role on Modern Family in recent years.

But for many, a Willard high-water mark is his work in Best In Show, as Laughlin, the TV announcer providing perhaps the most colorful color commentator possible, marked as it was by equal parts hubris and ignorance about the canine contestants.

Christopher Guest uses essentially the same ensemble cast from movie to movie, but I was curious how it works determining who will take which role—and particularly, how Willard ended up as Buck Laughlin. How much of that was attributable to Willard being an animal guy, and how much were he and Guest simply thinking he’d be the right comedic man for the job?

“The animal thing had nothing to do with it,” he explained. “Christopher just called and told me about the idea, and sent me a tape of the Westminster Dog Show. Joe Garagiola was the color man, and Christopher said ‘You’ll play that part, and you’ll notice he’s taken no effort to learn anything about dogs.’

So I played the tape and sort of got into Joe Garagiola’s rhythm. He suggested what I was: ‘You’re probably a coach of a Division 111 football team,’ but I expanded it a bit, that I was a professional athlete for a while. My attitude was that everyone in the world watching the show would be very interested in my physical accomplishments, as opposed to the dogs.”

Like how much you could bench press?

“Exactly,” he said, laughing.  “Which I thought was kind of funny, the idea that people watching a dog show would be really interested in me and my accomplishments.

A snippet of Fernwood 2Night with Martin Mull and Fred Willard

So the only preparation, really, was watching Joe Garagiola? You didn’t attend any dog shows, or watch any other broadcasts?

“No, but we got there a day ahead of time,” he said. “We filmed it in Vancouver, and he took us out to the site of the arena, and showed us film of what he’d shot already of the dogs coming through. And he said, ‘This is what you’ll be looking at tomorrow, supposedly.’

“So the next day, Jim and I just sat there and they moved the extras around behind us, but we were looking at nothing—just an empty arena. And he’d say, ‘OK, here comes this kind of dog, here comes that.’ I assumed, because I was just the color guy, that a lot of my stuff was going to be cut, left on the cutting room floor. Or just voice-over. So I pulled out every joke I could think of, every non sequitur, every comment. And he used almost all of it.

“And in watching the film, by the time I got done, I was glad he stopped there—I’d had just about enough of myself. I just wished he’d shown Jim and I leaving the auditorium at the end with a few final comments. But I think it was just about his most popular, most successful [film]—everyone seems to love it.”

I think that’s about right, and as a measure of how enormously funny and entertaining Willard’s performance is, he’s only onscreen maybe 20 minutes, yet he’s clearly Best In Show’s towering MVP.

Not surprising, really, in that for dozens of years before and after Best In Show he’s often seemed the MVP—or, at least, MFP (Most Funny Person)–in so many of the films and TV shows he appears in.

And this sort of small but mighty impact reflects no signs of abating, whether it’s the recurring, Emmy-nominated role on Modern Family or the brief appearance in the forthcoming Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which stars Will Ferrell and Steve Carell, is directed by Adam McKay and produced by Judd Apatow. Pretty much the top names in film comedy these days, so of course they wanted Willard.

Funny folks across all generations adore Fred Willard– onscreen and off—and want him in their projects. He shines in everything he does, but there may be a certain type of role in which he particularly excels.

A classic Fred Willard scene, ‘High Class Management,’ from the Christopher Guest film A Mighty Wind

Christopher Guest, in describing Willard’s contributions to his films once observed, “Fred has the patent on characters who are comfortable in their stupidity.”

I recount this to Willard, and he laughs heartily. “That’s right, that’s just right. People with no self-realization. And I just love that.

“I think people always like someone like that, because if they’re angry, you know they’re angry. If their feelings are hurt, you know their feelings are hurt. If they’re happy, they’re happy. There’s no subtext. That’s the kind of person I always wanted to be, but don’t think I actually am.”

But, heck, the kind of person Fred Willard is turns out to be pretty damn appealing. Just ask any of the countless people he’s worked with over 50 years. Or any of the countless animals he’s helped.

And we don’t just mean Mittenz, the cat he and wife adopted after someone in their neighborhood abandoned the kitty. Not by a longshot. Willard has also spoken on behalf of Farm Sanctuary, and appeared at their events.

Ditto PETA, for which he also recorded promo announcements advocating adopting cats and dogs (versus buying), and reiterating the importance of spay-neuter. The spots are funny and engaging—traits not unexpected for something featuring Willard on-camera, yet qualities often MIA in the animal rights world.

As our conversation continued, it became clearer that Willard possesses a profound sense of whimsy, not just generally, but also as it pertains to animals. He recounted a story from his stint starring on Real People, the NBC reality series that aired from 1979-1984.

“They sent me out to cover a woman who claimed she had a talking cow,” he remembered. “I was all excited. So we flew to Sacramento and drove a station wagon, the crew and me, to the farm. I met the lady and said ‘I understand you have a cow that talks.’ And she said, ‘Well, he was until about a week ago.’ I said, ‘Uh-oh.’

“So she took us out, and told us ‘He talks when he’s hungry. He’ll say, ‘I’m hungry, feed me, feed me.’ He’ll talk when he’s hungry. ‘ So she went up with the hay and says ‘Are you ready to eat? Are you hungry?’ The cow just stood there. Suddenly, she just threw him the food. I said, ‘Wait a minute—let’s get him to talk.’

“So I ended up doing the story with a microphone, trying to interview the cow, trying to explain to him he was on an NBC show and how prestigious it would be. So we started to leave and she said, ‘You know, a spaceship landed on our farm about a month ago.’ And our producer, we were loading up the station wagon, he stopped for a moment and said ‘We’ll get that story another time.’

“So we came back home and my wife asked how the story went, and I said ‘Not too well. The cow didn’t talk.’ And she said, ‘You didn’t really expect it to talk, did you?’ And I said, ‘In a way, I did.’ I always have a fantasy of actually talking to an animal.”

I hear you, Fred. As the host of Talking Animals, it may go without saying that I’ve long held the exact same fantasy.


Click here for the Talking Animals interview with Fred Willard.

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