Saturday 16 May 2020

Fred Willard

For a while, he was hanging out with someone called Vic Grecco, and making appearances you probably don’t remember on the Garry Moore, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan and the Summer Brothers Smothers shows. Eventually, he was making appearances you do remember with someone he was hanging out with named Martin Mull.

Fred Willard’s Jerry Hubbard was a one-of-a-kind character on a one-of-a-kind satire called Fernwood 2Night. Hubbard was oblivious but enthusiastic, a perfect character in a show filled with perfect characters for a parody of a small-town TV interview show.

Fernwood 2Night is one of my favourite shows of all time and I’m sorry to read Fred Willard has passed away.

Before he got there, he was part of a stand-up act. Let’s hear from his stand-up partner about how they climbed the ladder to success, pretty mild success considering where Willard ended up. This is from the San Francisco Examiner of April 14, 1963. The team was opening for Barbra Streisand.

Backing Up to the Top By Nancy Gray
Will success spoil Vic Grecco?
Actually, this is only half the question. Because if it spoils Vic Grecco, it's bound to spoil Fred Willard, too. Grecco and Willard are currently sniffing the sweet smell of success together from the stage of the hungry i. The shiny new comedy team is taking its first crack at San Francisco and the natives are getting their first crack at a fresh and apparently bottomless reservoir of laughs.
"We're opposites," Grecco explains. "I used to try to sell us to networks and I'd start off, 'One of them is tall and handsome,' I'd say. And they'd interrupt they'd always interrupt 'Yeah, and the other one is short and goofy looking.'
"Now I'd never thought of myself as goofy-looking and it hurt, so I'd reply, 'Well I think some people find him very attractive. He has a wife and daughter . . .' But no one ever listened. This is the story of our life: success.
"Back in New York I was a standout of some sort the salesman who didn't sell a thing. And then I was coordinator in a missile plant that made those parts they always blame when a missile forgets to move. Success."
Grecco goes on to tell how the unlikely pair met as actors three years ago off Broadway.
"At least we liked to tell people we were actors no one ever paid us. Anyway, we were in a play called 'Desperate Hours.' It spent three months in production and two desperate hours flopping. Success.
"From this though, we worked up some routines together and tried Greenwich Village coffee houses (They're theater restaurants now but they still serve the same terrible coffee depresso's what I call it).
"At Phase II, we shared the bill with Vaughn Meader—he got $7.50 a night and we got $10.50. I remember telling him to give up that Kennedy routine there were too many others doing it. Two weeks later the whole country knew him. And us? Success.
Hard as they fought it, Grecco, whose real name is Gus Mocerino ("See, I'm just one huge fake"), and Willard, whose name is really Fred Willard, caught on themselves last fall.
They broke into television on the Tonight Show and just last Friday made their first of two appearances with Steve Allen. What's more to continue the trend, they've moved from the coffee houses to the scotch and soda circuit. A record's in the offing. Success?

No, not the success Willard enjoyed when he was cast in a cult favourite which, unfortunately, decided to muck with its format and became a lesser show. Here’s a syndicated story from April 20, 1978.

The Chance As Second Banana Didn't Appeal To Fred Willard
By Dick Kleiner

Newspaper Enterprises Association
HOLLYWOOD—At first, Fred Willard wanted no part of the job.
He had been offered the spot of a right-hand man, a second banana. And he had played too many of them before, and felt he should hold out for something bigger, better, classier.
Willard had been on a couple of TV series already. He had just finished playing the District Attorney, with Michael Constantine, on his series, Sirota's Court. That hadn't worked, but Willard had come out of it with some nice reviews and some attention and some hopes.
And he had also starred on a pilot film that didn't sell, but still it was the star part and he liked that feeling.
So when the Norman Lear people asked him to take the second banana on Fernwood 2 Night, he balked.
"They told me it was a television talk show kind of thing," he says, "and that I was to be the assistant to Martin Mull, who was playing the show's host. I was supposed to sit on a couch, the end of the couch actually, and maybe add a comment now and then and introduce the guests.
"Well, it seemed like a step backward for me, back to being just another second banana. So I wasn't too enthusiastic, but it was for Norman Lear and it was a job."
So he took the job. And he says he was lucky, in that he and Mull hit it off and had a good rapport. The result was that Willard, as Jerry Hubbard, Fernwood 2 Night's answer to Ed McMahon, was able to become a personality.
He gradually built the part up, made Jerry Hubbard an integral and well-loved part of the show. He and Mull, he says, ad libbed about half of what they said on the show, and what is written is often written for his own unique brand of humor.
And so Fred Willard, as Jerry Hubbard, became famous right along with Martin Mull and Fernwood 2 Night. When the show ran its course and went off, the public protested so vehemently that it is now coming back, with a new name—America 2 Night—and a slightly new format.
"The new show," Willard says, "differs from the old one in that we have all moved west. So we are now doing the show from Los Angeles. What that means is that we are able to have celebrity guests—we have already had Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster and Cindy Williams on."
He says all three of them said they were fans of the first show, and were thus delighted to participate in the new one.
Willard is from Cleveland—actually a suburb, Shaker Heights—Mull is from Cleveland, and the show's creative supervisor, Al Burton, is from Cleveland. But the silly thing is that, so far, the show is not seen in Cleveland. So Willard says his parents don't know what he's doing.
(The show is syndicated, and some major cities do not have it because no station in that city has seen fit to buy it.)
Willard grew up with the goal of playing professional baseball. He was a first baseman, and played during high school, college (Virginia Military Institute) and, in summers, with many semi-pro teams. "But then," he says, "I realized I wasn't good enough for the majors, so I started looking around for something else to do with my life. And when I decided I wanted to act, I gave up baseball completely. Only recently I've started playing again."
He did time in the Army, then used his GI bill benefits to study acting in New York. He was one of the members of the Ace Trucking Company for seven years, which is where he honed his comedy-acting abilities.
"The group has broken up," Willard says, "but once in a while we still get together and play a date, just for fun."

Willard’s career didn’t end with America 2Night. In fact, he appeared in movies and regularly in a number of series, live action and animated, and was working up until his death. But he was never better than when he was cluelessly insulting lounge act Tony Rolletti by complimenting him. We need more Fred Willard, not less.

No comments:

Post a Comment