If the role of Marsh McGinley, a blithe and blithering sportscaster on
Back to You's
fictitious WURG-TV nightly news team seems tailor-made for Fred Willard, well, it is.
Not just because the Wednesday-night Fox sitcom's cocreator, Steve Levitan, wrote the role for the veteran TV and film actor - famous for playing grinning knuckleheads in Christopher Guest's ensemble spoofs, and for assisting Jay Leno on something like 90 Tonight Show comedy bits.
Willard, 68, is perfect for the part because he is, in fact, a seriously obsessed sports fan - baseball, in particular.
On his way to Philadelphia from D.C. this fall, Willard had his driver detour to 15th and Lehigh, to check out the site of the long-gone Baker Bowl, home to the Philadelphia Phillies for the first 38 years of the 20th century.
"There are pictures of the ballpark with this big factory over the left-field wall - it's an iconic picture of the old-time ballpark, and the factory is still there," Willard says. "The ballpark is gone, it's parking lots and all, but it was such a thrill to walk around. . . . There's a plaque that said it's the last stadium that Babe Ruth played in."
Willard, a Cleveland native and owner of a Babe Ruth-signed (and authenticated) baseball, smiles that smile of his. If he wasn't busy making a living on TV, he'd be happy enough just wandering the country, checking out baseball landmarks. "I love to go around and see where an old park used to be," he says.
There's something old-timey about his new show, Back to You, too. In its first season (and doing particularly well with males 18 to 34, Fox says), the series has a comfortable sitcom vibe, thanks to the fact that it's shot before a live studio audience ("It's like doing a little one-act play every week," Willard says). And that its two leads, Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, have about a hundred years of TV laffs under their respective belts.
Willard has worked with both Grammer and Heaton before, guesting on the penultimate Frasier episode (in which Dr. Frasier Crane visits his analyst, played by Willard) and on a bunch of Everybody Loves Raymonds.
When he was asked to shoot the pilot, Willard happily obliged - although somewhere in the back of his mind he felt a pang of reluctance. What if the show was a hit like Frasier?
"When I first signed on I thought, 'Oh God, this is going to run forever. Am I going to want to be on this for seven years?' "
But that's better than doing a pilot that doesn't get picked up - an experience Willard has had more than once.
"As an actor, and as you get to a certain level . . . and it's pilot season and you read the trades, you could have a nervous breakdown. 'So-and-so's signed for a pilot, why aren't I?'
"So just to get a pilot is a big coup, and then if it goes on, that's another level," he says, having coffee at a Rittenhouse Square cafe. "So I've always admired these series that stay on for seven or eight years, that's really magic. If you're not in the business you don't realize it . . . because there are so many pilots. It's a very tough business. . . .
"And I see people fired from shows, and I'm puzzled, I see they were wonderful."
In fact, Willard reports that Back to You had its share of casting turmoil early on. "We lost a couple of actors in the middle of the pilot, and it's like coming in and finding out that a friend of yours has died overnight. You were just talking to him. He was wonderful in the part, and now it's 'Oh, say hello to so-and-so.'
"Now, the people they got are great, I think, ironically, looking back, they're a little better. But still - you're wondering if the next day you're going to be the one."
Willard has been busy with movies lately, too. In Ira & Abby, a smart little comedy that comes out on DVD at the end of January, he gets to riff off of his simpleton, show biz-y persona (his character does voice work for commercials), but also do something a little deeper, more dramatic. Willard plays a married man (to Frances Conroy) who falls into an affair with his daughter's boyfriend's mom (Judith Light). Messy - but sweet.
"And I have a part in Pixar's futuristic 'toon coming out next year, called Wall-E," he reports. "The world is coming to an end and I'm the CEO of a company called Buy in Large, kind of like Wal-Mart, and we've taken over the Earth. I keep coming up on the TV monitor assuring the people out in space that everything's going to be OK, we're cleaning up the planet."
It's also a safe bet that Willard will show up in the next Christopher Guest flick - he's been in them all. More than the old Fernwood 2 Night, more than his Ron Burgundy anchorman role, Willard is recognized for being the clueless color commentator in Guest's 2000 pedigree pooch parody, Best in Show.
"Everybody I run into goes, 'Hey, Best in Show!' Or, 'Hey, that dog movie!' which I don't mind because I'm not too good on titles," he says.
"But I think that's how I got the part in this Back to You. I'm playing the same kind of character, a sports guy, 10 years behind the times. I keep meaning to write Christopher a note thanking him, but I don't know how he will take that. He's a very unusual man."