It may be a bit of a stretch for actor Fred Willard, but in Sunday’s episode of Christopher Guest’s delightful new HBO comedy, “Family Tree,” he will step into the time-honored TV role of wacky next-door neighbor.
He plays neighbor to an American relative of series star Chris O’Dowd's character, who after losing his girlfriend and his job embarks on a transatlantic genealogical journey to fill in the names on his family tree. After four episodes in overcast England, the series moves Sunday to sunny California to finish its last four episodes for the season — and that’s where we first meet Willard's character on the series.
A veteran of hilarious Guest films like “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind,” Willard once again delivers a wealth of inappropriate remarks with his trademark pleasant grin. Guest has worked with Willard since 1969 and said he gives little direction to his old friend. But the writer-director does have to counsel the actors who have never performed with Willard.
“I say, ‘Just enjoy,’ ” explained Guest last month about his first foray into television. “This is not about you anymore. Fred is going to do something, and you’re going to be a witness to this. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re going to get into the thing.”
While the series is elaborately plotted, all the dialogue is improvised by the actors. The key to making the scenes work, said Guest, wasn’t necessarily coming up with jokes but with being present in the scene’s reality. It’s even OK to be silent, Guest has assured the actors.
Of course, that’s rarely an issue for Willard.
“Typically, Fred will do his run and I’ll say 'cut.' And he’ll say. 'I’m not finished,' and I’ll say, 'I understand, but I’m going to get lunch now,' ” said Guest. “People who can improvise like this can literally go on forever. The well doesn’t dry up, that’s what’s so astonishing.”
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