Willard kids around as dad on new WB comedy

Monday, October 15, 2001

BURBANK, Calif. -- Fred Willard often exclaims "Gee." He likes peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. He looks like everyone's favorite Little League baseball coach, the guy next door, your best friend's husband.

But his sweet, endearing smile has an undertone of almost lunatic sadness. You don't know whether to hug him or jump away.

"He looks like a real normal guy, yet he's so crazy. He seems so middle-of-the-road, yet he's so off-balance," chuckles Suzanne Martin, creator and executive producer of "Maybe It's Me," a family comedy about well-meaning misfits on which comedic actor Willard plays the father.

Martin admits that the new WB series airing at 7:30 p.m. Fridays is somewhat autobiographical. Willard's patriarch, Jerry Stage, is inspired by both her nonconfrontational dad and her soccer-obsessed husband.

The odd as ordinary

Optimistically, she'd written "a Fred Willardesque man" as the character description in the pilot. She's thrilled she got the real thing.

"I think you can do anything in front of him and he would be just 'Aha,'" Martin says, noting Willard's uncanny ability to good-naturedly accept the odd as the ordinary, the absurd as natural, the wacky as OK.

"I guess the essence of my comedy is to get into a very abnormal situation but act like it's normal," says Willard, popular for both his eccentric skits on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and for his self-absorbed, ill-informed dog show commentator in the improvisational movie "Best in Show."

"Maybe It's Me" centers around Stage's teen-age daughter, Molly (Reagan Dale Neis.) The family also includes four other children living at home with Stage and his wife, Mary (Julia Sweeney), and a grandma and grandpa.

Away from the mismatched chaos of his home, Stage is an eye doctor. So here's Willard on the set at Warner Bros., wearing a blue medical coat and fiddling with his instruments as Stage misunderstands the purpose of his son's request for help on a term paper about heroes. (Stage presumes he's his son's hero.)

A few days earlier Willard had driven to downtown Los Angeles for a chat over lunch. He's immediately distracted by his discovery that the restaurant is close to where the Mack Sennett comedies were filmed.

But soon he's on track -- as much as he ever is -- talking about how happy he is to be working on "Maybe It's Me."

A straightforward offer

The concept didn't appeal to him. His response, he says, was, "Oh, gee whiz, I'd kind of shy away from playing the dad on a show about teen-agers."

But he liked the "very funny, very cute" script. It came with a straightforward offer, which was a big plus after many years of working through the standard auditioning process.

He's had previous, if fairly short-lived, success on sitcoms, most notably on the 1977 talk-show parody "Fernwood 2-Night." He has endless amusing tales about his life as an actor on the stage, in independent and mainstream movies, and guest roles on numerous TV shows.

He was nominated for an Emmy for playing Martin Mull's gay lover on "Roseanne," and recently portrayed sports commentator Howard Cosell on the ABC movie "When Billie Beat Bobby."

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