Today we celebrate the gifted comic actor Fred Willard (1933-2020). Most contemporary people know him I imagine from his turns in movie comedies from the last 20 or 30 years, like all those Christopher Guest comedies, or his recent spots on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. He was an improv genius; I imagine he could riff and riff and riff for hours and never stop being funny.
I first became aware of Willard in the ’70s, as one of the hosts on NBC’s Real People. Just prior to that he’d been on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman spin-offs Fernwood 2 Nite and America 2-Nite. And he’d been on The Burns and Shreiber Comedy Hour (1973) which I certainly watched and enjoyed.
But Willard had been in the public eye as long as a decade before I knew about him, as a member of the seminal improv and sketch comedy troupe Ace Trucking Company. It’s illuminating to learn about this little troupe of Second City alum, occupying as it does a sort of transitional niche between likes of Nichols and May and the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. The troupe consisted of Willard, Patti Deutsch (who became well-known as a regular on Laugh-In), Bill Saluga (best known for his character Raymond J. Johnson, Jr.) Michael Mislove and George Memmoli (a character actor you’d know from a ton of movies).The company was active from the late 60s through the mid 70s, and was frequently on variety programs like The Tonight Show, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett and The Midnight Special.
Here they are in a section from the countercultural cult movie Dynamite Chicken (1971 — not 1969 as it’s labeled on Youtube). Saluga is the politically incorrect stereotypical gay character. It’s obvious which one Willard is — he’s was the same guy for 50 years afterward!
To learn more about comedy history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc and To learn about show biz history (including tv variety) , consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.