Fred Willard has had 310 roles on film and television over his storied career. I became a fan when I was 11 and I watched a satirical political show about a Washington, D.C. tavern, D.C. Follies, that was populated by politicos and other celebrities in puppet form. Fred Willard played Freddy the Bartender . Playing straight man to a bunch of puppets is no easy task, but he did it with charm and gusto. https://youtu.be/TZROHjhuje8
He played clueless doofuses with charm. I think his best work was when he collaborated with Christopher Guest. His color commentator in Best of Show stole the movie.
Willard’s character Laughlin is watching a judge examine one of the dogs, “I don’t think I could ever get used to being poked and prodded like that,”. I told my proctologist one time, ‘Why don’t you take me out to dinner and a movie sometime?’” The other commentator, the upright and British Beckworth , tries to cover up his frustration with Laughlin. “Yes,” he says. “I remember you said that last year.”
Willard is best at awkward comedy that borders on full blown annoying. His folk music manager, Mike LaFontaine, in A Mighty Wind almost crosses that line. “As you know, back in nineteen seventy mrrphph, I starred on a series called “Wha’ Happened?”, and every time something would go wrong, I would look at the camera and say, “Hey, wha’ happened?” We had a lot of fun with that and a lot of other catchphrases: “I’ve got a weal wed wagon!”, and, uh, “I can’t do my wuurrrk!” And I believe I was the first one to use the phrase, “I don’t think so!” But it only lasted a year, and that’s good, because that’s how you establish a cult…” Kind of annoying, yes. Funny as heck, oh yeah.
Jerry Stiller had a long career making people laugh with his wife, Ann Meara, which union gave us Ben Stiller. But even better than Ben Stiller, of whom I am a huge fan, Jerry Stiller’s greatest triumph is Frank Costanza, the abrasive, sometimes abusive, and always hilarious father of Seinfeld’s George Costanza. He stole every scene that he was in. Seinfeld was a series that may have been the most quotable show of all time. Frank had a lot of winners. Who can forget “A Festivus for the rest of us.” ; the time that he and Kramer came up with the Bro, a brassiere for men ; and my favorite, when he was trying to calm and center himself with a simple mantra “Serenity now!” He screamed it invalidating the whole purpose of a calming mantra.
Alex Trebek was the host of Jeopardy for over 30 years. Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune were the two game shows I watched growing up and still watch. He had a sense of charm and humor that was infectious. You learned, you were entertained, and you smacked your forehead when you missed an easy question. Trebek was a national treasure and whenever he smiled, you knew the world wasn’t as bad as it looked.
I also loved how he was willing to make fun of himself. His cameos on other TV shows were stuff of legends. Counseling Cliff Claven, the biggest jeopardy fan and Cheers barfly https://youtu.be/jAIiPa5CZKI or explaining the rules of the game to Marge Simpson, https://youtu.be/ompdp20bsI8were two of the best. The Simpsons one is particularly funny because it inverted his calm affable nice guy persona.
Some of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches were the Celebrity Jeopardy parodies. Will Ferrel’s impersonation of Trebek was hilariously great, in trying to stay calm in the midst of celebrity stupidity and Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery’s meanness and cruelty. I Just thought of something, both inspirations for the great impressions from those sketches have passed, Connery and Trebek. In this YouTube clip, Trebek, showing that he is a good sport, has a cameo at the end. https://youtu.be/R3V94ZtmdbQ
That leads to James Lipton, the host of The Actor’s Studio. He was also portrayed by Will Ferrel. He also did a hilarious cameo on The Simpsons interviewing the actor Wolfcastle, who got too much into his character of McBain and shot him.
As a wannabe actor I loved The Actor’s Studio. James Lipton taught was able to get movie stars to open up in ways that you couldn’t imagine, including Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood, Bette White, and Bradley Cooper. (By the way, Bradley Cooper attended this drama school and was in the audience during many of these interviews.) He also interviewed Will Ferrell and in which Will Ferrell portrayed James Lipton to the real James Lipton And his class. He always ended with asking these questions that were on his blue note cards, and in honor of his memory, These are my answers to his questions.
What is your favorite word? Love
What is your least favorite word? Fundamentalist
What turns you on? A mischievousness sense of humor
What turns you off? Arrogance
What sound or noise do you love? Rain drops on a roof
What sound or noise do you hate? Yelling
What is your favorite curse word? Ass
What would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? It has been a long and winding road. You were a good yet uneven servant, welcome to paradise
The final two people I will mention, many may not have heard of. The first is Anthony James. It is funny that one scene in one movie can have such an impression. I am a huge Naked Gun fan. In Naked Gun 2 1/2, James’ Hector Savage is the hit man who Was hired to kill Frank Drebin’s lover, Jane Spencer.
It is one scene in her bathroom and in the hallway of her apartment but it is pure comedy gold. Savage is putting the silencer on the gun while Jane is showering and singing “The Way We Were.” All of a sudden Savage joins in alarming her. Frank Drebin bursts in and a fight involving shaving cream, a hairdryer, and a fire hose ensues. The scene is equal parts suspenseful and slapstick. Finding an actor who can be menacing and do good physical comedy is a challenge and Anthony James was up to the task. I can still remember listening to my father’s laughter during this scene. I also remember my own. https://youtu.be/qVSm0SS4ImU
David Schramm is not a household name. His Roy Biggins, the Hackett’s Airline biggest competition, in the show Wings was one of the best comic foils in sitcom history. The character was arrogant, greedy, at times mean-spirited, and made the Hackett brothers lives a living heck. But he also played him with pathos and a deep self loathing. You disliked Roy Biggins but you felt for him.
Wings is an underrated 1990s sitcom, in my opinion. And David Schramm is an underrated comedy star. They say tragedy is easy but comedy is hard. He made it look easy. In this scene, arrogant Roy wants to know why everyone on the island hates him. This is a pitch perfect scene. https://youtu.be/ojQ3JtxLYAM
In my final memorial blog, I will discuss a villain from Llanview, Pennsylvania, a hero from Wakanda, Africa, and a cafe called Manna.