Fred Willard
Interviewed By: Gringo

Fred Willard's been in some great movies, from Spinal Tap to Roxanne, he's done plenty of work in television and he's even met the Muppets. He very kindly agreed to an interview for this site, and you can read the questions and answers below. And huge thanks to Mary Willard for organising all of this in the first place.


Gringo: The trusty Internet says that Teenage Mother was your first movie. What did you play, and what was your first taste of cinema like?

Fred:I played a high school baseball coach. I broke up a sexual assault on the sexy new female Swedish biology professor, and when I saw the movie for the first time, before a paying audience in Staten Island, the rather rowdy male audience booed my bravery and daring. I was quite amused by that.

The movie I took as a training experience for things like "hitting the mark" and "blocking" - you know, like walking around a corner in a high school corridor with a group and still stay in the proper camera angle. I also learned if you're in a teen exploitation film and you hear a woman scream in the boiler room, just keep moving.

Gringo: You were in Roxanne - what was your time on that set like? Was it tough sticking to scripted jokes instead of making it up as you go?

Fred: That was filmed mainly in a beautiful Canadian town called Nelson, so the scenery was beautiful, but the living conditions were a bit spartan. It was great being around Steve Martin whom I found to be quiet and private. It was not tough sticking to the script since it was written by Steve. Also, he would allow us to improv a bit. The cast was full of comics and that was fun too, not to mention Darryl Hannah who would drop by exterior shootings when she wasn't working, wearing a belly shirt. All the cast bought bikes the first day, but Matt Lattanzi and I were the only ones to use them.

Gringo: How did the role in Spinal Tap come about? Was it the first improvised role you'd done?

Fred: My agent called and said they wanted me for the role of an Army officer who welcomed a Heavy Metal group to the base. I thought it would just be a scene where I was made to look foolish. I said "no". Then he said Rob Reiner just wanted me to come out and meet him. I reluctantly went. Rob and his people were out to lunch when I got there but his secretary said he just wanted me to see the "demo" film they'd shot. It was about 10 minutes long.

I was so astounded at what I saw that by the time they returned I said I definitely wanted to be part of it. They said what about billing and salary, etc. and I said it didn't matter, just let me be a part of this . It was the first improvised role I'd done (on film) and I'd worked with Harry Shearer and Michael McKean before so I was a bit at ease. Plus I'd had a bit of military background so I knew the "military mentality".

Gringo: In Waiting For Guffman, did you all manage to get through the stage show Red, White & Blaine in one take?

Fred: Absolutely not. That was the toughest part of the movie. We thought we would just finesse the dance steps-you know, be comedically bad. But they hired a choreographer who put us through our paces on Saturdays and several evenings and it was tough. I would watch Eugene and Catherine and Parker to follow them and then realized they didn't have any more of a handle on it then I did. My happiest moment was when they said after the Stool Boom number,"O.K., let's move on." I high-fived the other actors and said, "We did it!". Eugene was a hero because he injured his foot early on and had to wrap it and take pain killers when we filmed.

Gringo: Of the two epilogues (Ron and Sheila make it as extras, or Sheila just ends up depressed) which did you prefer? Why?

Fred: Ron and Sheila end up as extras. I love dressing up like a cowboy and I thought it was funny that I was still giving directions to other actors until the director told me to shut up.

Gringo: Did you base your character in Best In Show on anyone? Did you have to do any research, like visiting real dog shows?

Fred: Chris Guest sent me a tape of the Westminster dog show and he said, "Notice that Joe Garagiola (ex-major league catcher and sports broadcaster) has taken no effort to learn anything about dogs." That was my cue. I was familiar with Joe from his baseball broadcasting and just picked up his rhythms and magnified the ex-jock habit of being self deprecating while at the same time reminding us of their sports background

Gringo: With improvisation, how much filming takes place compared to what we see on screen? Are a lot of jokes cut?

Fred: A lot - an awful lot. Of course you know going in that 80% can't be used. But it's like having a dozen well loved pets and having some taken away. I could only watch Guffman once and kept telling my wife what had been cut out - from all of us - and she would say "Oh, you were in it a lot." I would say, "Yes,but..." I was pleased when Chris put my favorite scene in the DVD. But he said during filming he wanted 82-84 minutes and in my non -selfish moments I know he was right.

Gringo: Of the three released Christopher Guest movies you've been in, what's your favourite line or scene? Why?

Fred: Favorite line in Best In Show was when I asked the host if he had any idea how much I could bench press. To me it represented the character's whole self involvement. In Guffman it must be the Chinese restaurant scene where I show Eugene Levy my "surgery". I am so fond of Eugene and his persona that I get a kick out of acting the insensitive boor around him.

Gringo: How long were you on set for Christopher Guest's new movie, A Mighty Wind?

Fred: A total of about 5 days. That can come off as a starring role or a bit part depending on the feared cutting room scissors.

Gringo: Who do you play in the movie? Was it a good experience?

Fred: I play a low rent comic's manager. I drew from a lot of past experiences. I bleached my hair a bright blond (with black roots) and bought a couple of outrageous suits. So, if I'm not funny I'll be at least noticeable. It's a joy to be in Christopher's movies as everyone is of the same mindset and the direction comes from Christopher and Eugene Levy, two people I couldn't have higher regard for.

Gringo: What was it like working with the Muppets (on Muppets Tonight)?

Fred: It was very brief. Less than half a day. I love working with puppets. Unfortunately it was after Jim Henson passed away so I did not get to meet him. I'd had a lot of experience doing a show called D.C. Follies. where I was the only human among life size puppets. The producers of that show, Sid and Marty Krofft, said I talked to the puppets as if they were real people. I took that as a compliment.

Gringo: Forgive my Britishness - I don't get to see many of Jay Leno's shows. What do you do on the show?

Fred: I play a different character every time, depending on who is in the news. Last week I was Liza Minelli and David Gest's lawyer. I've played everything from Clinton's dog to Christopher Columbus to the owner of a nude grocery store.

Gringo: You've done lots of voice-over, TV, movie and stage acting - which is your favourite, and why?

Fred: Voice over is quick and requires no make-up and you read off a script. T.V. provides fairly quick returns and movies are harder but more prestigious. So for the best of all worlds I'd say T.V.

Gringo: What's the hardest part about the job you do?

Fred: Just getting the job. Auditioning in a room is usually asking for disappointment. When an offer comes in it's a delight. Once on the job it's the long hours and early calls and the waiting in your trailer. I've decided to quit the business many times after sitting in a cramped "Honey Wagon" for hours waiting for the Production assistant to knock on your door. Once on the set, though,you decide you want to do this forever.

Gringo: And the easiest?

Fred: The actual acting,when you're "off script".

Gringo: What's the one role/show/movie/play you'd love to do?

Fred: Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man.

Gringo: What's up next for you?

Fred: Four episodes of the series Everybody Loves Raymond and a movie called American Wedding - a follow up to American Pie (actually a second follow up). I'll get to work with Eugene Levy again. I hope I can be boorish to him once more. It will be directed by Jesse Dylan, who is Bob Dylan's son and who directed me in How High last year.


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