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.