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Comic Actor Fred Willard Dies At 86

'Anchorman' and 'Modern Family' star Fred Willard has died.

Fred Willard, the beloved and prolific comedy actor, died in Los Angeles overnight, Willard's daughter confirmed to CBS News in a statement. He was 86 years old.

"My father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old," Willard's daughter Hope said in a statement. "He kept moving, working and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever."

The cause of death was not released.

Willard had over 300 acting credits to his name, according to IMDB, including a recurring role on the sitcom "Modern Family" and a role in the upcoming show "Space Force" starring Steve Carell. Carell tweeted on Saturday that Willard was the "funniest person I've ever worked with. He was a sweet, wonderful man."

He was perhaps best known for his numerous roles in the "mockumentary" comedies of writer and director Christopher Guest, including "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind," and "Waiting for Guffman."

Guest's wife, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, paid tribute to Willard on Twitter Saturday. "How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard's gifts," she wrote. "He is with his missed Mary now. Thanks for the deep belly laughs Mr. Willard."

Willard's agent Michael Eisenstadt said in a statement that he "was one of the busiest comedic actors in a career which lasted over 50 years."

Willard reads onstage at Celebrity Autobiography: The Music Edition, Volume 5 at The GRAMMY Museum in 2015 in Los Angeles. Image: Getty

"He had recently completed his Emmy nominated recurring role on Modern Family and can be seen later this month in his recurring role as Steve Carrell's dad in the Netflix series Space Force. Jimmy Kimmel had Fred recur on his show on an average of every two weeks doing comedic sketches until the stay at home order began," Eisenstadt said.

"Fred truly enjoyed each role and gave each performance his own special spin. He was truly a comedic genius."

'An improv comedy master'

Born September 18, 1939, Willard cultivated his wisecracking straight man persona as the son of a stern father who worked in a bank. He was raised middle class in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and fell in love with sketch comedy after seeing the 1950s vaudeville silliness of bandleader Spike Jones and the City Slickers.

Though Willard spent his formative years in military school, earning a graduate degree in English from Virginia Military Institute, his heart was always in show business.

After he spent his stint in the US Army stationed in Germany, he moved to New York in the early 1960s to train as an actor. In no time, he and a classmate were appearing as a comedy duo on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Fred Willard with 'Anchorman' co-stars Christina Applegate, Steve Carell, David Koechner , Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd. Image: Getty

Around 1965, Willard moved to Chicago to spend a year training with the groundbreaking improv group The Second City. Then he returned to New York and co-founded his own troupe, the Ace Trucking Co, which spent years performing on high-profile TV variety shows, opening for Tom Jones in Las Vegas and eventually releasing a comedy album.

Along the way, Willard co-starred in an off-Broadway black comedy with a 20-year-old Guest, a connection that would later change the course of his career.

"I knew something was off when Fred started doing lines that weren't actually in the play to me," writer-director Christopher Guest said in a TV interview in 2007. "I didn't know what to make of it. I said to myself, 'You're different.'"

By 1977, Willard was appearing with Martin Mull as host of a short-lived parody talk show, Fernwood 2 Night, created by Norman Lear. That led to another brief hosting gig for the NBC reality series Real People.

But it was Willard's mastery of the mockumentary, starting with the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap, that first earned him widespread notice. In that film, he played an Air Force officer trying to prove his hipster cred with a series of cringe-worthy jokes. And though it was years before the film reached cult status, Willard had discovered his place.

Willard with Jennifer Coolidge and Catherine O'Hara at a 2006 fundraiser. Image: Getty

He spent the 1980s and 1990s bouncing around TV with a few notable recurring parts, including as Mull's gay partner in Roseanne. That same year, he appeared the Oscar-winning comedic short film Ray's Male Heterosexual Dance Hall.

In Guest's 2000 comedy Best in Show, Willard earned enduring success as an over-the-top dog show host. Willard's bone-headed - and improvised - interstitial remarks to his prim, British co-host became one of the highlights of the film. He won an American Comedy Award for the performance.

After that, Willard appeared in higher-profile film roles, in the 2004 Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and its 2013 sequel and as the CEO of the Buy 'n' Large Corp in the 2008 Oscar winning animated film WALL-E.

He spent three seasons on the hit CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond as the conservative middle-school vice principal Hank MacDougall, earning three Emmy Award nominations for the role. And in 2009, Willard began as an occasional guest star as Ty Burrell's father on the ABC series Modern Family, earning an Emmy nomination in 2010 for the role.

Willard would go on to appear in three more of Guest's mockumentaries, A Mighty Wind in 2003, For Your Consideration in 2006 and the Netflix film Mascots in 2016.

In 2012, he was arrested for suspicion of engaging in lewd act at an adult theater in Hollywood. But rather than hide behind a publicist, Willard tweeted a review of the X-rated film he was caught watching: Lousy film, but theater would make a terrific racquetball court. Then he went on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and cracked jokes about it. He was later exonerated of any wrongdoing.

In 2016, he formed a sketch group in a little theatre in North Hollywood called the MoHos that performs regularly around Los Angeles.

"That's always been my favourite thing: sketches," he told L.A. Weekly in 2016. "Because if the audience doesn't like something, it's over in four or five minutes and you go on to something new."

With AAP.