Fred Willard Interview: ‘Planes’ and How to Be Funny
Audiences tend to know Fred Willard from his memorable roles in Anchorman, Waiting for Guffman and WALL-E. But this actor-slash-comedian has been working non-stop in the entertainment industry for decades. So when it came time to interview Fred Willard and talk about his new films Planes: Fire & Rescue (now available on DVD, Blu-ray, etc.), we didn’t want to just talk about the big films. We wanted to talk about the films no one talks about enough.
We got Fred Willard on the phone and jumped as quickly as possible into stories about his first movie role, the 1967 sexploitation flick Teenage Mother, as well as his experiences filming Salem’s Lot, Roxanne, “Laverne & Shirley” and the oddly prescient 1979 comedy Americathon, a film about America defaulting on its loans and resorting to TV fundraising to stay in business. And he also tells us, once and for all, how to be funny.
CraveOnline: You don’t have the biggest role in Planes: Fire & Rescue. Is this the kind of role you can knock out in an hour or do you have to do a lot of prep for it?
Fred Willard: No, no. At first I went in, the sent me the script, we discussed the script, they showed some storyboards. They showed me what my character would look like. It probably took a couple hours, and then a week or two later they called again and said, “You know, John Michael Higgins is coming in,” he plays the guy who kind of runs the [resort]. “We think it would be kind of fun if you read through the script and maybe did some improv and worked off each other.” So that was fun too. We came in and spent a couple hours doing that, and I think that was about it.
As you said, it wasn’t that much. And then the next thing, the next step was they sent me a picture of my character and then they invited us all out to Disney to premiere the film. And then the big premiere down in Hollywood where it was done in 3D. So that’s pretty much how it went.
Did any of your improv make it into the movie?
I think some of it did. I watched it [and] I wasn’t sure. Most of was pre-written but there was a lot of it, that back and forth, a lot of it you probably couldn’t have gotten if we just had been there separately. But anyway, it was a good chance to go out and work with John Michael Higgins and be back at Disney too, which is a great place. It reminds me of the Pixar compound up in Oakland. It’s just so colorful that it’s almost like a Disney movie itself. All the workers are so happy when they’re eating lunch. Everything’s decorated fine. So it’s just a happy place to be.
You were in the Pixar movie Wall-E and you got to actually appear as a human being. That was really cool.
I was. I think I was the first human being to be in a Pixar movie. That was a lot of fun. Funny, they really pitched me to be in it. Like they had to sell me on the idea. I was thrilled! They brought me up to Oakland to view the studio. I told them my grandson was a big fan of Pixar. I brought him, my wife, my daughter. They gave us a tour of the studio. Yeah, they’re very great people. That took quite a while to do that because I was on camera. I went up one day, spent the day there and then I had to come up another day to do another day of shooting.
That’s pretty much what I remember, except I remember I did my portion about a year before the movie came out and I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody about the movie. I wasn’t allowed to do any publicity about it until just before it opened. So that was kind of interesting. So I’d tell people I was in this movie Wall-E, I was a little vague about it. It took them about a year to do the animation.
I want to ask you about some of your earlier work because you’ve had a very interesting career progression. Your first film was Teenage Mother, is that correct?
Yes! [Laughs.] Yes it was, and the reason I took that… I had done a TV episode of something and I found that my problem on the TV episode, every time I did my line they’d go, “Hold it! Your shadow is falling over the actor’s face,” or “Hold it! You missed your mark.” This was something I was not aware of because up until then I had done either theater work or nightclubs, you know, comedy sketch work. And at that point it was all about hitting the mark and not having light casting shadows over an actor’s face.
So they gave me this part, I said, “This will be a good acting lesson as to where to walk and to hit your mark, etc.” So I took it as an acting course. I probably got a hundred dollars for it.
But I love the role. I played the coach of a high school baseball team, and it was fun to do. Since then I talked about it on some show, I think the Jay Leno show. We got a lot of laughs out of it. I told a good story about the plot line.
To make a long story short I was the guy who stopped the students from sexually assaulting this pretty young Swedish biology teacher, and when we went to see the movie on Staten Island, when I broke into the room and stopped the sexual assault the audience booed me. I was the villain in the film! Because she was a pretty, buxom teacher and they pulled her clothes off, and I’m [saying], “What’s going on here?! Stop this!” The whole audience booed. It was just a funny idea [that] I was the villain.
You were in one of the prescient comedies of the 1970s: Americathon.
That sure was! That came out, it was about a telethon to save America. They could have one now! That would be a darn good idea. You know, America was going broke [in the movie]. It really was… I think it came out just before that big oil crisis and it showed people on bicycles and roller skates and living in buses. Yeah, it was very brave. Very ahead of its time.
It seems like that would either be a very fun movie to work on, or a very annoying movie to work on because there are so many different acts performing and running around. Was it a good experience?
Oh, it was a great experience. John Ritter was on the film… yeah, it was a lot of fun. There was a lot of running. There was a very funny scene… No, I’m thinking of another movie called Moving Violations… I’m getting them mixed up.
I like Moving Violations too.
Yeah, Americathon. It was ahead of its time. I remember we did a lot of it at the Hollywood Palace Theater on Vine St. and I remember my daughter had a little bit role in it. She was a background actress. I’m trying to think of what else I remember about it.
The only other thing, I remember we were doing a scene somewhere and they called a whole bunch of extras in, like nine in the morning, and these poor guys… Their scene wasn’t shot till five in the afternoon, and I got so mad at the assistant director. I said, “These guys have been sitting around since nine this morning. I was there worrying about them, and they’re getting paid. I was getting so mad. I was so sensitive to that. I’ve always been sensitive to that. And in those days, it happened to me, you’d be called in at seven in the morning and at four o’clock they’d finally say, “We’re about ready.”
Today it seems to be a little better. They’re a little more conscious of your time. Anyway, that’s the only downside I remember of the whole movie but I had a lot of fun doing it.
Did you actually have to learn how to be a fireman to be in Roxanne?
You know, it’s a funny thing they did. We had an off-day and the producer had us come out and work with a fire department, [learn] how to roll up the hose and how to pull those hose out, the whole thing. And the day we shot the big action, the director watched us do it and he director said, “No, no, that’s no good. Here’s what I want you to do.” [Laughs.]
He just threw away the whole official way to do it and just did it the film way. What I remember out of that was putting on those fireman outfits. The boots and the helmets, and I said, “Ah, god bless these firemen.” It wasn’t even that hot out there. We did it in Vancouver. But that’s a job in itself, just getting into those outfits.
I also remember we did three nights of all-night shooting which pretty much ended up on the cutting room floor, and I think back… I said, “Oh, geez.” It was fun working with Steve Martin, and Steve Mittleman, and a lot of actors. I can’t think who else was in that, but the funny little guy…
Oh yeah, I can’t remember his name…
Yeah, from Bonnie & Clyde?
Yeah, that’s going to bug me too. [Editor’s Note: It was Michael J. Pollard.]
Yeah, he was very funny. I joked around with him a lot. We were on the set one day, he was very strange guy, we were out on the set one day… one of the last days… and someone made a joke about him, or made a joke to him, and with a smile on his face he picked up a garbage can and threw it at the guy. Just out of left field! And then back, he had a smile on his face and everything was okay.
And then I remember another time we were just getting ready to shoot a scene and it was [laughs], I forget the director’s name, John something, and he said, “Everything’s set, sound rolling, and…” And all of a sudden [Pollard] yelled out, “John, do you think I should lose weight?” And it just broke the whole movie. Everyone laughed and it was wonderful. There was a lot of pranks on the set. He was a funny guy. I assume he’s still doing stuff but I had a lot fun with him, and the whole cast.
I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever seen you in a horror movie other than Salem’s Lot…
That was a beauty. I was such a fan of…
Tobe Hooper. [Texas] Chain Saw Massacre, the original, I was such a fan of that movie, and when he asked me to be in that movie I was thrilled to be in it. And I kept saying, “Why the hell would he want me in this movie?” We got to the set and he’s a very sweet man, he’s very soft-spoken, and one of the first scenes I had to leave my office and go across the street to this house with James Mason.
[Hooper] said, “Now Fred, you cross the street with whatever funny little run you had in mind.” A funny little walk or a funny little run. I said, “Oh… the character’s supposed to be kind of a funny little, fussy little guy.” So I got the key from him. And we became friends, we had him to a couple parties at our house. I still think Texas Chain Saw Massacre was what they call one of those watershed movies. That and The Exorcist and Psycho were just landmarks for those horror films.
I kind of lost contact with him, but he was a master. Boy, and Salem’s Lot, there’s some scary scenes in that. I got to work with James Mason. I saw it recently and I said, “You know, I had no memory of being in a room, acting with James Mason.”
I must have been so intimidated, or else so clueless, and I remember on the set I there was something… we were watching him on the porch. He had to come out and do a scene and then they said “cut” and they were going to do the re-take, and in mind I said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were to run up on this porch and pretend like I was giving him an acting direction?” And I was just about to do it and I said, “No, I’d better not.” So looking back I think I’m glad I didn’t do it.
That could have been awkward.
You know, you’re young, you’re cocky, you think this might have been great, and he might have laughed or he might have walked off the set. I don’t know. I remember him being a very personal guy. Anyway. There’s things I’m glad I didn’t do.
You have so many films and TV shows that you’ve been a part of. Do you have a favorite, just to watch?
[Thinks.] One of the first shows I ever did was “Laverne & Shirley.” I played this sleazy guy that came into town with a friend and was going to date Laverne and Shirley, but we really wanted to get into the bowling alley because it was next to the bank we wanted to rob. Back in the days, you know, David Lander and Michael McKean played Lenny and Squiggy, and I played like… remember Steve Cochran, the movie star?
Black hair, very slicked back. Very slick. I played a character like that, and I look at that and I say, “Wow, what a great character I was.” I think that’s the favorite one to watch.
Other roles? I can’t watch for about a year when I do a scene because you’re aware of what happened that day. I think if the lines sound right. After about six months, nine months I watch it, I go, “Oh gee, that was very good” because you forget all those other things. I’m very critical of myself. I’m trying to think. There must be something.
Some of the Christopher Guest movies, when I’m not really like myself, when I have my hair dyed blonde or had a faux-hawk haircut. Those I like to watch because it takes you away from your real self. So several of the Christopher Guest movies I enjoy watching.
Do you have any secret or lesson you’ve learned about being funny, or not being funny, that you can share with the world? So that people can be funnier?
I think if you have a funny thought, and you want to get off a funny point, try to do it as realistically as you can. If you try to act it funny and accent the funny points, or do it in a funny style, you kind of lose it. Just act it out and let the people get the point themselves. I remember someone once said, an old comedian said, “Never overestimate an audience’s knowledge, but never underestimate their intelligence.”
Because people are bright. They may not know who Justin Bieber’s girlfriend is, but they understand the whole, what’s going on. And if you make a joke about a young singer who’s doing crazy stuff or something, they’ll get it without you adding an extra funny touch to it.
That’s what I’ve always tried to do. I’ve tried to be as serious in my comedy as I can.