Fred Willard On The Spot

From Cool Whip ads in the ’70s to last year’s film A Mighty Wind, in which he played the manager of a wacky folk-music group, Fred Willard has done it all. Now appearing as a well-meaning yet clueless character in a Sierra Mist Free spot from BBDO, the 65-year-old Los Angeles-based actor is preparing for a stint on Everybody Loves Raymond and filming the upcoming movie adaptation of Bewitched with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell. No matter how busy he gets, the Cleveland native still makes time for fans who request their favorite lines from This Is Spinal Tap.

Q: Why did you decide to do Sierra Mist?

A: I read the script, and thought it was very funny and perfect for my character. Then they said they were also going to use Michael McKean. I just love Michael. We’ve been in all the Christopher Guest movies together.

Did you and Michael improvise a lot?

We did. I would say half of that spot was not written. I think the whole ending, where he grabs the bottle and says, “Give me that,” and I say, “Why don’t you get your own? They’re free.” And he says, “They’re not free.” I think that was one of those things where we kept taping and the director liked it, or whoever puts them together liked it.

How do you choose commercial projects?

There are certain products you don’t want to do—adult diapers, dentures. Things like that you just want to stay away from. But I’m not really in the position to turn stuff down.

How would you compare working on ads to working on a film or TV show?

The longest time we took in the [Sierra Mist] shoot was me putting the bottle down. I guess they call that the beauty shot. We did that over and over. They can laugh at you and think you’re wonderful and it’s a brilliant spot, but if they forget what the product’s about, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to get that product up next to your face or hold it where your thumb can’t cover the logo. In a sitcom it’s just the opposite: Don’t show the label. Turn it around.

What characters do your fans ask you to do the most?

The big thing now, they come up and say, “Hey, wha’ happened?” from A Mighty Wind. I kind of shy away from that. I didn’t mean it to be a catchphrase. And I’ve never met anybody in showbiz who hadn’t memorized at least a few lines from This Is Spinal Tap.

How is it working with Christopher Guest?

I just admire him so much. The challenge for me, always, when I’m around him, either in a social situation or on the set, is to try to get a laugh out of him. And if I can say something where I can see him just sneak a little smile in, I think I’ve kind of succeeded. But he just comes up with these wonderful ideas for movies.

What work are you the most proud of?

Strangely enough, I did Laverne & Shirley 20 years ago. My wife TiVoed it, and I said, My God, this is wonderful. I played a con man who was dating Cindy Williams, and my friend was dating Penny Marshall, and we went on a date to a bowling alley. We went into the men’s room to set off a dynamite explosion to get through to the bank next door. I was much younger. I look like George Raft. I was very smooth and very funny.

Is there any acting you haven’t done that you’d like to try?

I always wanted to be in a Western, but then I had to ride a horse once in a movie, and that changed my mind very quickly. I’d like to do one of those legal shows. Plus, I’d love to do a show in Hawaii. It would be fun to go over there and work on either North Shore or Baywatch Hawaii or something.

What would you be if you weren’t an actor?

I once told a friend of mine, I said, sometimes I think I’d like to be a forest ranger. You know, sit up on one of those tall lookout things and watch for forest fires. He said, Fred, I think the same thing. But you know what would happen. We’d be there about a month and say, Hey, this would make a great movie of the week.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

I would try to get together five minutes of standup material and get up in some local comedy club, and even if it’s not funny, work it a few times. The focus is on you entirely, and even if you’re not particularly funny, once you get to the point of getting up to a comedy club in L.A. or New York, someone in the audience might see you and say, Boy, he’d be just right for a show I’m doing. The funniest comics don’t always transfer into good actors. A lot of time someone’s just interesting.

How do you get past a creative block?

I love to go out and watch a comedy show, live shows and theater shows. I’m a big fan in L.A. of these little 99-seat theaters. And I’ll just see something that will interest me. Even if something is awful, it will set something off. Also, suffering helps you. If something bad happens to you or something sad, use it. It ignites those juices.

Who’s one person you’re dying to work with?

My first choice would be Woody Allen. I love his movies, and everything I’ve read about the way he works, I think I would like it.

What three words would other people use to describe you?

Sweet, nice, funny. And I hate that. “Oh, he’s the sweetest guy I know.”

Why do you hate it?

You don’t want to come across as sweet. I complain about a lot of things, so, you know, you don’t want to be this sweet guy.