Remembering some of the comedic greats the world lost in May.
In the May 7 JN, I paid tribute to the late, great Detroit Tiger Al Kaline. Since then, we’ve lost two more legendary all-stars … all-star comedians.
In a May 11 tweet, comedic actor Fred Willard paid respects to Jerry Stiller, the incomparable, hilarious, Jewish character actor who died that day at 92. Stiller, arguably best known for his role on Seinfeld, rose to stardom as one half of the husband/wife comedy team of Stiller and Meara.
“A bad time!” Fred tweeted. “Just getting over the loss of Little Richard, and now I learn my old friend Jerry Stiller has passed away. He was a good friend and a very funny man.”
In a second tweet he added: “I met him (Stiller) in the ‘60s when we played in the same clubs in the Village as he and Anne Meara. Unfortunately for us, they were much funnier! We couldn’t be jealous, so we became good friends instead.”
Now I’m just trying to wrap my brain around the fact that on May 15, just four days after his farewell messages to Jerry, Fred Willard died. A statement released by his daughter, Hope Willard Mulbarger, read: “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. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”
When I got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet and work with Fred Willard in 2008, I thought I had gone to heaven. More on that later.
For my money, Fred Willard was the most original comedic character actor of the last six decades and easily the best improvisational performer. A Second City alum, star of television’s Fernwood 2 Night, roles in Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family, sketch comedy on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel Live, classic movie roles in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and Anchorman, are only the tip of his gigantic comedy iceberg.
Fred called into the Dick Purtan Radio Show in June 2008 while shooting a film in Detroit, Youth in Revolt. During that conversation, we learned the Cleveland-born comedian was a huge Indians baseball fan. Guess who the Tigers were playing that night?
That evening, Dick Purtan, his late wife, Gail, daughter Jackie Purtan, plus myself and retired radiologist Larry Lawson, my dear friend and longtime cast member of Purtan’s People, were taking in the Tigers-Indians game with Fred. Gracious guests that we were, we treated Fred to a Cleveland victory.
Larry was lucky enough to enjoy an encore evening with Fred when he returned to Detroit a month later for more shooting. The baseball gods were smiling down upon us once again, as Cleveland was back in town to face the Tigers. This time Larry was the only one available from the Purtan Show, so he and his wife Myra chaperoned Fred to the July 9 game.
“On the drive down. Fred asked if they had torn down old Tiger Stadium yet,” recalled Larry. “When I told him it was half demolished he asked, if it was on the way, could we swing by and see it. We did. We sat at the site for a few minutes, then Fred asked if I could drive around our beloved relic of a stadium for just one more look. He was in awe.”
Turns out Larry did some unintentional improvisational comedy of his own that evening. Unfortunately, upon leaving Tiger Stadium for Comerica Park, he took a wrong turn and got lost for a while in what Larry respectfully described as not one of Detroit’s most desirable areas, with one of America’s beloved entertainers no less.
Once at the game, Fred took time to enjoy the historical markers at the ballpark, which included a photo-op with Larry in front of the Hank Greenberg display. “On our way to our seats, Fred accommodated fans who wanted photographs and autographs,” Larry said.
“He was so gracious. Unlike his onscreen persona, he was soft-spoken, unpretentious and down to earth. I only met him twice, but I feel like I lost a friend.”
Fred remained in town and on July 11 agreed to make a surprise appearance as our special Purtan’s People guest announcer at a sold-out Royal Oak Music Theater Comedy Night fundraiser for the Gail Purtan Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. I had the privilege and terror of writing Fred’s script. What a relief knowing that his iconic deadpan delivery would guarantee laughs.
Former Detroiter Hanna Lopatin is mourning the loss of Fred Willard. She’s the daughter of my good friends and neighbors Jennifer and Mark LoPatin, who’s carved out a career for herself as a comedian, actress and copywriter in LA for the past 11 years.
I knew improv was one of Hanna’s strong suits and mentioned that to Fred who agreed to meet with her upon his return home to California. Hanna, a recent transplant to LA, went to that first meeting with original writing samples in hand.
Before the evening was over, Hanna had an amazing new mentor in Fred. He made her an official member that night of his sketch-writing workshop, the MoHo Group, who she performed with for two years.
“As a writer, I never got over the feeling of exhilaration every time Fred would perform my words on stage,” she said.
Over time, Fred and his late wife of 50 years, Mary, a playwright and TV writer, became like family to Hanna. “I think they saw themselves as like grandparents to young people trying to make their way in Hollywood,” she said. “They liked to shield people and guide them. For that I will be forever grateful.”
Jimmy Kimmel said it best in his tribute to Fred during his May 19 show. “Fred played basically the same character in everything; he was the same guy because it always worked. So why would you change it? It didn’t matter if the movie or show was good, bad, terrible or great, Fred was always funny. And he was more than just funny, he had a light inside of him. You could see a glint of it in his eyes, and it made everyone around him happy.”
How lucky I was, and all of Purtan’s People, that we got to experience that joy firsthand during the summer of 2008.