After collaborating with Fred Willard over the years, Jimmy Kimmel paid tribute to the actor and comedy icon on his Monday show. The late night host dedicated the night to remembering Willard, who died Friday at the age of 86. “He was more than just funny. He had a light inside him; you could see a glint of it in his eyes. And it made everyone around him happy,” Kimmel said.
After Willard co-hosted one of Kimmel’s late-night shows, the JKL host had the actor back several times, to the point where he became “a very regular part of our show,” Kimmel said. In the summer of 2018, Willard’s wife, Mary, had just died, and “we wanted to come up with something for him to do.” When Trump announced his Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military and the JKL team learned Willard had starred in the 1978 TV movie Space Force, they asked him to reprise his role in a bit.
Later, Kimmel said, “we started putting him in everything, every sketch.” There were times, he added, when his writing team would pitch five ideas a day for Willard. “Sometimes he’d be in two bits per monologue … we could not get enough Fred,” Kimmel said. In a video compilation of his appearances, Willard can be seen playing Fred C. Trump, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a Florida man named “Goose Halpern,” among many other roles.
Later in the show, Kimmel invited some of Willard’s notable collaborators to record memories of the actor. His Waiting for Guffman co-star Catherine O’Hara remembered him as “wildly, unbelievably funny,” which helped her to overcome her nerves on the movie. Director Christopher Guest recalled once running out of film on a movie and yelling “Cut!,” to which Willard replied, “I’m not finished.” Guest said, “I think he could have gone on forever. He had an astounding gift.”
Eugene Levy, who worked with Willard on Best in Show and other films, recalled being concerned that the third act of that movie wouldn’t be entertaining until director Guest suggested Willard could be the color commentator. “All you had to do was mention Fred Willard as the color commentator and the entire act was going to be funny,” Levy said.
Willard’s Modern Family co-stars Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen also contributed memories, as did Ray Romano (who worked with him on Everybody Loves Raymond), collaborator Martin Mull and Norman Lear (who worked with him on Fernwood 2 Night and other titles). “I never enjoyed anyone in our business, the entertainment business, as much as Fred Willard. I loved him as a man. I adored him as a character,” Lear said.