Fred Willard has been a Christopher Guest guy from the very beginning. Guest only starred and cowrote “This is Spinal Tap,” which was directed by Rob Reiner, but it set the template for the improvised mockumentaries Guest would start making himself with “Waiting for Guffman.” Willard only had a tiny role in “Tap” — he’s the army guy who talks to the band before an ill-fated show at an airbase — but he’d become one of Guest’s best scene-stealers in “Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration.” He’s in “Mascots,” too, Guest’s latest mockumentary, acting weird and spluttering nonsense.
Willard talks to us about his history with Guest, planning his improv and his dream to be in a Woody Allen movie.
How did you wind up with that bit part in “Spinal Tap”?
I worked with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer before that. They had a group called The Credibility Gap at the same time I was in a group called The Ace Trucking Company. We used to see them on the road. I would play business or army guy types. They might have thought of me. It might have been Rob Reiner, too, because I was doing a show called “Fernwood 2 Night” at the same studio he was doing “All in the Family.” [Ed. Both were Norman Lear shows, too] It was an afternoon thing, and it was totally improvised. I thought, ‘No one’s going to ever see this movie,’ though I thought it was just brilliant.
It wasn’t a hit when it came out, and now it’s considered one of the best rock ’n' roll movies ever made, which is funny because it’s a lampoon.
They are so musically good, those guys — just brilliant musicians. We just rewatched “Spinal Tap”; I don’t think I’d seen it since it came out. When they do the flashbacks to the ’60s — those were good songs! They could have been hits back in those times. You’ve heard worse songs than them on those hullabaloo shows.
Did you stay in contact with Guest and those guys between “Spinal Tap” and “Waiting for Guffman”?
I was subsequently in a movie that Eugene Levy wrote and directed called “Sodbusters.” Then Eugene and Chris Guest wrote “Waiting for Guffman.” Eugene probably said, “Fred Willard would be perfect for this part.” It all came together. I was a huge Eugene Levy fan I love what Chris Guest did. You end up liking certain sorts of comedy and then you work your way into their graces. I was such a fan of “SCTV”; I saw them when they started out in Toronto on stage at Second City. I would see Joe Flaherty in Los Angeles, and I’d go up to him and say, “Joe you’ve got to get me on ‘SCTV’!” So he eventually did. They called me up to Toronto to be on a couple episodes. I wouldn’t do that now — “You’ve got to get me in your next movie!” — unless you really love something.
Are there other people you’ve always wanted to work with but never did?
I always wanted to be in two other peoples’ movies: Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. I auditioned for one of Albert Brooks’ movies years and years ago, but didn’t make it. I always hope Woody Allen’s people will call me and say, “Woody wants you to be in his movie.” If I ran into him I probably wouldn’t say, “You’ve got to put me in one of your movies!” Although maybe I should. He only pays scale, but that’s good for me. And he does long takes. You do it once and go home.
You can bug fellow Guest regular Parker Posey. She’s been in two of his movies [“Irrational Man” and “Cafe Society”].
Yeah! I ought to ask Parker how she gets in those things.
With Christopher Guest’s movies, since they’re improvised, do you tend to plan a lot of it out before you shoot?
You do. You think it out. You don’t want to go in there and say, “What are we doing here? What do you want me to say?” In “Best in Show,” I really planned out a lot of dog jokes, because I thought most of my stuff would end up on the cutting room floor. With [“Mascots”], I had a background for him. Chris told me some things he wanted to get across. About half of it comes up spontaneously. You don’t want to just go in there and do the jokes you planned the night before. You work off the other actors.
You have a scene with stand-up comic Brad Williams, where your character obliviously lobs insults to him over his dwarfism.
He’s a funny guy. I didn’t know about that scene until Chris said, “You’re going to talk.” I wasn’t making fun of him. I was playing a character who was actually puzzled by him. He’d never seen a small person before. My character was based on a guy who’d been injured and had a little bit of a concussion, so he didn’t pick up too quick on things. If I’d been putting [Williams] down it wouldn’t have worked.
Since “Guffman,” improvised movies have really become a thing. There’s a lot of young blood in here — Chris O’Dowd, Zach Woods, Sarah Baker — melding with the longtime Guest staples.
They fit in really nicely. I feel like one of those ballplayers who’s now a utility man who comes in in the late innings: “Go out there and hit one like you used to!” [Guest] keeps enlarging the cast, and I think that’s good. After awhile you don’t want to see the same people over and over again. Eugene and Catherine O’Hara were not in it because they were doing their own series up in Toronto [“Schitt’s Creek”]. But I miss them.
They’re great on that show.
They can’t help but be funny.