Actor and comedian Fred Willard at his home in Encino, Calif. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Which Fred Willard do you know?
There's his inanely clueless dog show announcer Buck Laughlin in "Best in Show," Christopher Guest's 2000 mockumentary on the dog show world. It was Buck who famously said in bit of color commentary: "And to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten."
Some still remember Willard best as the dimwitted second banana Jerry Hubbard to Martin Mull's smarmy talk show host Barth Gimble on the 1977-78 TV show parodies "Fernwood 2Night" and later "America 2-Night." Or today's audiences who know him for his Emmy-nominated role as Ty Burrell's jokester dad onABC's"Modern Family," or as the religious conservative father-in-law onCBS'"Everybody Loves Raymond" from 2003 to 2005.
PHOTOS: Celebrities by the Times
"It's so hard to analyze comedy," said comedian Colin Mochrie, who appears with Willard in the new ABC improv comedy series, "Trust Us With Your Life," which has its premiere Tuesday night. "I think part of Fred's success is that he's incredibly likable so you are immediately put into a state where you are not on-guard. And then he can say horrible things to people, but it's done with such a sense of obliviousness. He is never hurtful. It's that sort of offhandedness, that sort of underplaying that makes him so funny. That's the genius of Fred."
Director Rob Reiner got to know Willard on "The Smothers Brothers" in the 1960s — Reiner was a writer, Willard performed with then-comedy partner Vic Greco. Reiner used Willard in his classic 1984 send-up "This Is Spinal Tap." Now he's cast him again for the small but showy role of the genial mayor of a small resort town in the comedy-drama "The Magic of Belle Isle," which opened Friday.
"He always works because he delivers," says Reiner. "You can count on him to give you these little gifts."
The subject of all this admiration lives with his wife, Mary, in Encino in a ranch-style house that is very much midwest-colonial with a shot of Vermont Country Store. The 72-year-old Willard greets his visitor with an open-faced friendliness — he's funny, but isn't on. The Fourth of July is coming up and the American flag is flying outside the house and inside, there are red, white and blue streamers and decorations for their annual holiday party complete with fireworks.
For nearly 50 years, Willard has been one of the busiest comedic actors in the business, appearing in dozens of movies, including Guest's other comedies "Waiting for Guffman," "A Mighty Wind" and "For Your Consideration," as well as "The Wedding Planner" and "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and such TV series as"Castle,""The Closer,""Roseanne"and "Real People."
Surprisingly, he didn't believe he was funny until he was an adult.
"I always loved comedy growing up — Bob Hope, Red Skelton and Danny Kaye," he noted. Willard was working in a New York credit office, a job that allowed him time during the day to go off to audition. He was signed to perform with Greco one summer in upstate New York.
Willard also got a serious part in a Tennessee Williams one-act. "I was getting laughs on all the lines," Willard recalled. "The director got upset because the audience was always laughing. So the next time we did it, he actually had to do this intro to the audience saying this is not a comedy but there are some inadvertently funny lines that may get laughs.
"I didn't try to do it deliberately. Then I realized I would say things around people and they would laugh. I didn't mean to be funny. I have always been more relaxed around comedy."
Improvisation is also something that came naturally to Willard. "You just get out there on stage, say your first line and see what happens," Willard said. " I found when I was at Second City doing it every night, it came so easily."
But Willard doesn't think he is up to the standards of the other improv comics on "Trust Us With Your Life." The series features Willard interviewing such celebrities as Serena Williams and Ricky Gervais about key moments in their lives. At certain points during the interview, Willard invites the improv comics to re-create that key moment.
"After working with Wayne Brady, Colin Mochrie and Jonathan Mangum, I said I am never going to talk about improv again," said Willard.
"Trust Us With Your Life" isn't the only new series Willard has this summer. He also supplies the narration for PBS' "Market Warriors," which begins July 16 on KOCE. The series, from the producers of "Antiques Roadshow," follows four treasure seekers. Phil Rosenthal, the creator and executive producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond," said Willard "can be breathtakingly funny seemingly without moving a muscle. It is effortless."
But Rosenthal admitted it was difficult to convince Willard to do the part on "Raymond." "He said, 'I don't know if I can be funny doing this.' I said, 'Just say the lines straight.' He would be hysterical."
Even seven years after the end of "Raymond," Willard still doesn't like the character.
"He is such a stiff," said Willard. "I thought he was a bit of an exaggeration. But I met someone at a party who was from Mississippi and said, 'We have known so many people just like you!'"
Willard would like the chance to do more dramatic fare. He was hoping to work on Clint Eastwood's World War II "'Flags of Our Fathers."
"It was the only time I ever called my agent [about a job] and said please try to get me in this movie. Tell them I had been in the Army for two years. I went to military school. I am not going to camp it up. Clint Eastwood's people called back and said, 'We love Fred, but we are afraid if he appeared on the screen, they might start to laugh.'"