FRED WILLARD, TOURIST; I'M WITH STUPID DEPT. Series: 4/5

By Friend, Tad | The New Yorker, July 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

FRED WILLARD, TOURIST; I'M WITH STUPID DEPT. Series: 4/5


Friend, Tad, The New Yorker


Fred Willard has long put his hearty, game-show-host manner to use playing characters who are gloriously out of their depth. Willard improvises his lines, spouting poppycock with absolute self-assurance; in the film "Best in Show" his character, a dog-show announcer, muses about a miniature schnauzer, "You'd think they'd want to breed 'em bigger, wouldn't you? Like grapefruits or watermelons." Christopher Guest, the writer-director of "Best in Show," as well as the Willard showcases "Waiting for Guffman" and "A Mighty Wind," has observed that "Fred has the patent on characters who are comfortable in their stupidity." Away from the cameras, however, Willard is a scholar of vanished luminescence. He pores over photos of bygone buildings and makes pilgrimages to places like the intersection near Bakersfield where James Dean's Porsche got rammed and the motel in South Los Angeles where Sam Cooke was shot.

One morning recently, Willard, in town from Los Angeles, had a few hours free before a rehearsal (he is starring as an Elvis impersonator in "Elvis and Juliet," written by his wife, Mary, at the Abingdon Theatre). So he boarded a Gray Line bus at Forty-seventh and Eighth for a city tour. Willard and his wife lived in Manhattan in the early nineteen-seventies--"Our daughter was born in the old French Hospital, where Babe Ruth spent some of his last days," he recalled--and he was curious to compare the metropolis today with his memories. Sitting on the bus's open upper deck, wearing chinos and a checked shirt, the sixty-six-year-old actor listened attentively as the guide, a small Japanese-American woman shaded by a large black sun hat, drew everyone's attention to the first attraction: the Gray Line offices across the street. Willard confided, "Used to be a gay porno theatre, by the way."

As the sightseeing continued--Columbus Circle, Lincoln Center, etc.--Willard kept up a murmured alternative commentary, pointing out the block where Jack Dempsey's restaurant used to be, the apartment building where Arnold Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series, the hotel where the gangster Albert Anastasia was gunned down in a barber's chair.

As the bus drove down West Seventy-second Street, past the Dakota, where John Lennon was killed, Willard looked away: "It's too recent, like O. …

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