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Sunday, October 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fred Willard steals `Best in Show' as All-American Idiot

Special to The Seattle Times

Sportscasters beware! There's a new cinematic interpretation of your profession, and it may be the funniest part of the funniest movie of the year.

Christopher Guest's "Best in Show" is a mock-documentary about a Westminster-like dog show. It utilizes many of the same talented comedians who helped make a cult hit out of his 1996 comedy, "Waiting for Guffman."

Eugene Levy, for example, plays menswear salesman Gerry Fleck who, while handling his Norwich terrier, has to deal with his two left feet (literally), as well as the lascivious past of his wife, Cookie (Catherine O'Hara). Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock are Starbucks-loving, yuppie lawyers who project their neuroses onto their pet Weimaraner.

There are also scene-stealing cameos from Larry Miller and Ed Begley Jr.

But it's when the Mayflower Dog Show finally begins, and we hear commentators Trevor Beckwith (Jim Piddock) and Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard), that the level of humor reaches a crescendo.

Beckwith is the knowledgeable British commentator, the one who takes dogs, and dog shows, seriously.

Laughlin is his American counterpart. Think of the most obtuse, self-centered sportscaster you've ever heard and times him by 10. That's Laughlin.

It's a crowning achievement for Willard, who has made a career out of playing the All-American Idiot in very smart comedies like "Fernwood 2-Night" and "The History of White People in America."

"I pictured this guy having broadcast major league games," says Willard, 61, who was in Seattle recently with his wife, Mary, to promote "Best in Show." "But that was over, and now he's doing this. The next step down is maybe the local beauty show, or high-school football. So he's really trying to do his best and show, `Hey, I belong in a better place.' "

Yet Laughlin is blithely inept. After the Weimaraner attacks a judge, he declares in his sportscaster cadence, "He's still a champion - even though he's been sent off in disgrace."

So - the big question - was Buck Laughlin based on anyone?

"(Christopher Guest) sent me a tape of the Westminster Dog Show," Willard admits. "And he said, `Now Joe Garagiola is the color guy. You've got to listen to him. He's made no effort to learn anything about dogs. And this isn't his first year either.' "

What Laughlin says, though, is pure Willard. The credits may read "Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy," but "Best in Show" - like "Guffman" - is improvised.

"What they wrote is the concept," Willard clarifies, sitting on a couch in a hotel suite in downtown Seattle. "Each scene, the progression, the whole plot outline. They just left off the dialogue."

"Fred got his script," Mary Willard adds, sitting across from her husband, "and it said `Buck' and then a blank page."

The Willards, married for 32 years, work the conversation like any longstanding couple.

"We did it in about five hours," Willard says of his part in the film.

"And the dogs weren't there," Mary reminds him.

"Just Chris Guest sitting behind a camera," Willard continues. "And he'd come up and say, `OK, now here's the part where the toy terriers come out.' And then we'd (improv) that for a few minutes. And then he'd say, `OK, now the next batch is where I come out with my bloodhound.' "

Willard was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a household he admits was not very funny.

"I was an only child. My father passed away when I was 12, so it was very difficult. But I was always the class clown. I don't know why, maybe as an escape. But then I was sent away to military prep school. My stepfather was a military man, he was in the Air Force. Reserve. You thought he'd seen front-line action but he was stationed in Cleveland."

For college Willard went to Virginia Military Institute, which he equates with prison. He played baseball, but downplays his abilities.

"If I said I hit one out, it meant out of the infield."

After military duty he moved to New York, enrolled in acting school, and teamed with a classmate on sketch comedy.

Eventually Willard moved to Chicago and the improv groups "Second City Television" and "Ace Trucking Company," but nearly let his big break pass him by.

"My agent called and said they're doing a show called `Fernwood 2-Night' and they need a host."

Willard had recently done something similar at "Second City" and didn't want to repeat himself. "They said, `No, you wouldn't be the host, you'd be the Ed McMahon. . . Martin Mull will be the host."

"I'd just seen him do an act in L.A., and I thought he was really good."

"Fernwood 2-Night," with Mull playing the smarmy host, Barth Gimble, and Willard as his fatuous sidekick, Jerry Hubbard, was a hit with the critics, and led to a spin-off, "America 2-Night," but it was canceled after two years.

Mull and Willard, however, went on to work together on other projects, notably "Roseanne," where they played a gay couple. Willard received an Emmy nomination for his work.

"They still make each other laugh," Mary adds.

"You could never top him," Willard says proudly. "I called him the other night, and he said, `Just a minute, let me turn down the TV.' He came back. `It's the Olympics. They're on every four years, but how often do you call?' "

This is typically Willard. When he tells stories of Mull or Eric Idle or Harry Shearer, he often seems less peer than fan - as if he hadn't realized yet that he travels in the same circles with these men.

"I spend most of my time when I'm with Catherine (O'Hara) and Eugene (Levy) repeating what they said on `SCTV,' " he admits with a semi-embarrassed shrug.

If there's any justice in the world, fans will be pestering Fred Willard with what he said as Buck Laughlin for years to come.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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