Fred Willard Was an Army Veteran, Comedy Legend and Commander of 'Space Force'

Fred Willard in "Spinal Tap."

Fred Willard, the comic actor whose hilarious roles made him one of the most revered supporting players in Hollywood history, has died in Los Angeles at age 86.

Willard, from Shaker Heights, Ohio, was sent to military school as a teenager and followed that with a two-year stint in the U.S. Army that saw him serve in West Germany.

After his military career, he worked at clubs and theaters as a comedian and as part of improvisation groups. He didn't get his first television credit until age 32 but went on to amass 499 appearances in movies and television over the next 54 years.

Willard took the jobs when they were available and is noted for guest roles on shows like "Modern Family," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "The Love Boat," "Love American Style," "Mad About You," "Family Matters" and "Roseanne." And, just to prove he was up for anything, Fred did a guest arc on soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" in 2015 and won a Daytime Emmy.

His weirdest job may have been in 1979 as the host of "Real People," a news/entertainment hybrid show from "Laugh-In" producer George Schlatter that predicted the rise of viral video, reality television and cable news filler.

Related: How 'Laugh-In' Creator George Schlatter Made America Crack Up at the Height of the Vietnam Era

Willard's career started to really take off in 1977 when he created Jerry Hubbard, the talk show sidekick to Martin Mull's Barth Gimble on the satirical comedies "Fernwood Tonight" and later "America 2-Night." Hubbard was a friendly-but-clueless man who said whatever popped into his mind, and that shtick became the foundation of Willard's most memorable characters.

Fred became a legend because of his performances in a series of mock documentaries that are among the most beloved modern comedies. Here are some video clips from his funniest work.

'This Is Spinal Tap'

Rob Reiner's 1984 mockumentary about a fake British band launched the genre and featured Willard as Lt. Hookstratten (weirdly credited as a "colonel in the movie credits), who's in charge of welcoming the talent when the band takes a gig on a U.S. Air Force base as its tour is falling apart.

Willard, ever gracious, tries to let Spinal Tap know that he's a fan. Well, maybe at least of rock music. Or perhaps just music in general.

'Best in Show'

In Christopher Guest's 2000 mockumentary "Best in Show," Willard is Buck Laughlin, the TV host of a competitive dog show who knows next-to-nothing about how the shows work or even much at all about dogs.

With a lot of airtime to fill, Buck rambles on about any random thing, much to the discomfort of commentator and actual canine expert Trevor Beckwith (played by Jim Piddock).

'Waiting for Guffman'

1996's "Waiting for Guffman" was the first movie from Guest's comedy ensemble. A small-town theater troupe learns that a Broadway pro will attend the premiere of their new production and proceed to lose their collective minds.

Willard is Ron Albertson, a travel agent who's not great at small talk during dinner at a Chinese restaurant. "Schitt's Creek" fans will notice Catherine O'Hara is his very drunk wife and Eugene Levy is the dinner guest who'd rather be anywhere else in the world as the scene unfolds and he learns about Fred's special groin surgery.

'A Mighty Wind'

In 2003's "A Mighty Wind," the Guest ensemble takes aim at '60s nostalgia when a once-popular folk act is persuaded to reunite for a PBS television special.

Willard is Mike LaFontaine, a former sitcom actor who's become a music manager. Still, he can't quite let go of the fame he thinks he gained on a show that lasted only one season.


Willard is KWVN San Diego station manager Ed Harken, responsible for brokering some kind of peace between anchorman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and the station's new co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate).

He's also got a kid in Catholic school, and it seems that the boy's got a few issues.

'Space Force'

In 1978, Willard got a big break with the role of Capt. Thomas Woods, commander of a remote military space station, in the NBC sitcom pilot "Space Force." The network didn't order a full series of the show, but it did air the pilot once before an episode of "Saturday Night Live."

Who could have predicted that comedy would someday become reality? Unfortunately, the modern Space Force won't be sporting uniforms featuring the 1970s Houston Astros color pattern and it won't have Fred in charge.

Someone claims to have recorded "Space Force" on a home beta video recorder in 1978 and has shared the full episode on YouTube. Since a betamax recorder cost the equivalent of around $12,000 in 2020 dollars, we should thank this rich person for their foresight in preserving this historical artifact.

'Space Force 2'

Fred did a lot of skits for Jay Leno when he hosted "The Tonight Show" and moved his talents over to "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" after Leno retired. Willard appeared approximately every other week on Kimmel up until the quarantine shut down regular production earlier this year.

The writers over at Kimmel got hold of the "Space Force" pilot and decided to reboot the series after Ted Cruz made his notorious "space pirates" speech in the U.S. Senate. Check out the awesome job Kimmel's crew did in recreating those original uniforms.

'Space Force'

We'll get one last chance to see Willard at work when the upcoming Netflix series "Space Force" goes live on May 29. Fred, of course, is the only actor to appear in both major shows called "Space Force," a distinction that should be noted on the future wall of honor at Space Force Headquarters.

In the new "Space Force," Willard plays Fred Naird, supposedly the secretary of defense and the father of Space Force Commander Gen. Naird (Steve Carell). We'll have to wait for details, but it'll be great to see Willard and Carell reunited for their first project since "Anchorman."

Keep Up With the Best in Military Entertainment

Whether you're looking for news and entertainment, thinking of joining the military or keeping up with military life and benefits, has you covered. Subscribe to the newsletter to have military news, updates and resources delivered straight to your inbox.

Story Continues