Fred Willard died of natural causes, a rep for the actor confirms to PEOPLE

By Maria Pasquini
May 16, 2020 02:43 PM
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Beloved film star Fred Willard has died. He was 86.

The comedic star, whose numerous credits include Best in Show, This Is Spinal Tap, Everybody Loves Raymond and Modern Family, died of natural causes, a rep for the actor confirms to PEOPLE.

"My father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old. He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end," his daughter Hope Mulbarger tells PEOPLE in a statement. "We loved him so very much!"

Fred Willard

"A fond farewell to Mr. Fred Willard," actress Jamie Lee Curtis, whose husband, Christopher Guest, has worked with Willard extensively over the years, wrote in an Instagram tribute."How lucky we all are that we got to witness his great gifts. Thanks for the deep belly laughs. You are now with Mary. Home safe."

His death comes less than two years after his wife Mary died at 71. The pair had been married since 1968 and had one daughter.

Many actors and filmmakers who loved and admired Willard's work went on to pay tribute to the late actor on social media.

"Rest In Peace sweet @Fred_Willard," wrote his Modern Family costar Jesse Tyler Ferguson. "You will always be a true original and I am so honored that our lives intersected. No one will ever come close to replacing your genius.

"Fred Willard could not have been funnier.  He was pure joy.  And the sweetest person you could ever meet," added Judd Apatow.

Willard's death also came months after the character he played on Modern Family, Phil Dunphy's father Frank, died of old age.

Willard played Frank for 14 episodes across all 11 seasons. In 2010, the role garnered Willard an Emmy nomination for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series.

Fred Willard
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Fred Willard
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Born in Ohio, the four-time Emmy nominee started off his career in sketch comedy, and began working for the Second City in 1965. He was also a founding member of the Ace Trucking Company, a sketch and improv group.

After several years of bit roles, his big break came in 1977, when he joined the cast of Fernwood 2 Night a parody talk show that was a summer replacement for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The following summer, he also repressed his role playing talk show sidekick Jerry Hubbard in America 2-Night.

Another life-changing career moment came when he started working with Guest, starting with the filmmaker’s directorial debut, Waiting for Guffman.

"That started to change everything," Willard told The Hollywood Reporter last year. "I was thrilled to be working with people I worked with — Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy — I was such a fan of theirs, and Christopher Guest. I'd see him on Saturday Night Live, and I'd met him socially a few times, but it was just so much fun. It was like a party every day, or a picnic, doing those scenes. You never think it’s going to be seen in a theater audience. You were just doing it to try and get this story told, get in a joke or two, and when it came out, it did quite well."

Since then, Willard has gone on to star in many of Guest’s films, including Best in Show, For Your Consideration and A Mighty Wind. He also made scene-stealing performances in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004).

Fred Willard in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
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Fred Willard in Waiting for Guffman
Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy Everett Collection

For his work in television, Willard has received four Emmy nominations.

He was nominated for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for three consecutive years from 2003-2005 for his work on Everybody Loves Raymond, playing Hank MacDougall. His fourth and final nomination came for Modern Family in 2010. He also starred alongside Steve Carell in the upcoming Netflix series Space Force, which will begin streaming on May 29.

In addition to his onscreen roles, Willard also spent time working with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, City of Hope, and Actors and Others for Animals.

He is survived by his daughter and son -in- law, Hope and Mitch Mulbarger, as well as his grandson Freddie.