Fred Willard, who died on May 15 at 86, was a brilliant satirist, and he did what I think is the best kind of satire; it’s very close to the bone. You didn’t know if it was supposed to be funny or if he was telling you an honest truth. We tried to do that with This Is Spinal Tap, and he did it with everything. When we were doing Spinal Tap, the cinematographer kept saying, “What’s funny about this? This is what really happens,” and I said, “No no no, it’s a little bent.” And that’s what was great about Fred.
You need great observational skills to see a character like that–in Best in Show or with any of the characters Fred played, he would take a look at what someone would have actually said and how they were in their behavior, and then he would just tilt it ever so slightly. If you didn’t look closely, you’d think, “That’s the way they really are.” Fred knew how to just tip it a little bit. If you played opposite him, you could never break him up. You’d laugh like crazy watching his stuff, but he was so committed and into the character that he’d never break.
Normally the instinct is to go overboard, to make people see, “Look, I’m making fun of this guy.” When Fred was making fun of somebody, you almost didn’t know he was doing it. But while usually satirists have a hard edge, he was the sweetest, most generous, kindest person–and you could actually have a conversation with him. That’s what I’ll always remember about Fred.
This appears in the June 01, 2020 issue of TIME.
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