Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Day We Met the Great Fred Willard, Scholar of Vanished Luminescence

This New York Times profile of Christopher Guest---which smartly compares his work to that of another of our favorite moviemakers, Preston Sturges---brought to mind the time we ran into the funniest of Guest’s ensemble players, the great Fred Willard.

It was the Super Bowl weekend of 2004 (or one of those years), and we and our wife, daughter and a sister in-law were headed downtown to take in the Rockets and the Knicks at the spanking new Toyota Center. We left the car at friends’ in the Museum District and walked over to the spanking new Metro station to catch the spanking new light rail into downtown. We had been at the platform for a couple of minutes when we looked to our right and saw a big, shambling guy in a ballcap come walking up alone.

“Hey! It’s Fred Willard!” we squealed. “Who’s Fred Willard?” asked our daughter.

“Fred Willard, man, we loved you in Best in Show!” we said as he ambled closer. (We were so excited that we actually said, “We loved you in Dog Show, Fred Willard!” His turn as the announcer in Best in Show is one of the funniest bits ever committed to film, and, as with all of Guest’s movies, supposedly was ad-libbed.)

“Thanks,” said a humble Fred before asking us for directions into downtown and then seeking our assistance in purchasing a train ticket (which didn't look that difficult to figure out, but we're always glad to assist a celebrity, especially one we like). It was then we noticed that Fred was walking funny, sort of listing to one side, and his hands shook noticeably when we gave him his ticket (it was on us), which we hoped was due to a massive Super Bowl party-hangover and not some encroaching neurological disorder. The comedian quickly shied off to be alone at the other end of the platform, so we immediately instructed our daughter to go ask for his autograph.

“Why?” she asked (nowadays, having been enrolled in middle school for two years, she 'd just tell us to get it our own sorry self).

“Yeah, you’ll always remember the day you got the great Fred Willard’s autograph,” we told her after she returned with the prize. “Who is he?” she asked again.

The train was crowded into downtown and Fred squeezed into a seat by his lonesome. A couple of middle-aged women passengers recognized him and snapped off a series of digital close-ups, but Fred pretended not to notice. Then, for some reason, he got up, gave us a little wave and exited the train at the very next stop, far from downtown. He fled on foot, headed south, away from all the Super Bowl spuzz. Last we saw of him.

We thought he might be disoriented, but later we learned from this Talk of the Town item in the New Yorker that Willard is a scholar of vanished luminescence, so he most likely had spotted some on South Main (where it's not totally vanished) and wanted a closer look.

That day our daughter was more impressed by seeing Paris Hilton and her butt cleavage doing something with an MTV microphone downtown. Now she knows who Fred Willard is and, like us, looks forward to seeing Guest’s For Your Consideration.

Come to think of it, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs is nothing but a character sprung to life from a Guest movie (we’re working on the script on another screen, right now).

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