© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Backstage With' Fred Willard And Martin Mull


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Martin Mull and Fred Willard are comic partners in many minds. They helped create "Fernwood Tonight" in the late 1970s. And while they went on to solo careers in films and stage, they were reunited to play one of TVs first gay couples on the series "Roseanne."

We sat down with Martin Mull and Fred Willard for the Public Television show "Backstage With," produced by WVIZ and WCPN and Playhouse Square in Cleveland. Both of the actors had been doing improv comedy when they met in the makeup room. Fred Willard remembers that years before Stephen Colbert and truthiness, "Fernwood Tonight" was a faux talk show.

FRED WILLARD: It was much hipper and sharper than I thought it would be. And it was really just wonderful.

MARTIN MULL: Yeah, we went into Norman Lear's office and he threw some pages at us and said: Read these. And we sat there and just did it in character and it just clicked instantly. And I think we were also off-book and going in different directions and improvising, and it was absolutely amazing, chemically.

SIMON: ‘Cause years before Comedy Central did these shows - where of course now the term now is truthiness - that's kind of what you're doing on "Fernwood Tonight" and "America Tonight."

WILLARD: What's the term?

SIMON: Truthiness, Stephen Colbert...

MULL: What is truthiness?

SIMON: Well, I believe he refers to it as something that is not really true but kind of has the appearance of it.


SIMON: Yeah.

MULL: Seeming verite.

SIMON: That's very - that's the even better one.


MULL: Thank you.

SIMON: That's great, as a matter of fact. Good, yeah. Boy, I like that. But that's what you were doing with this talk show, "Fernwood Tonight," which became...

WILLARD: We tried to make it is real as we could…

MULL: Exactly.

WILLARD: ...because it really, cable show from the small town in Ohio. And I think we tried not to give it away like, oh, we're just making having fun. We try to make a very serious and let the humor come out of that.

SIMON: Fred, here's a short list of words used to describe characters that you played over the years: dense, obnoxious, grinning, genial, clueless, boob.


WILLARD: Obnoxious? Now, where did come in?

SIMON: So...

WILLARD: All right, I - well, seriously. If I have to play an obnoxious character, try to find a redeeming feature of him. The most obnoxious people in the world were people and they had had a reason for doing what they did. So you try to find that and let the obnoxiousness come out.

But boob, dense, I think I worry too much about things. So I love to play the character who has no cares, oblivious to everything. It's a kind of a release. It's the kind of character I would love to be.

SIMON: What's the best advice you ever got about acting?

MULL: I used to have a little traveling show, a music show that I did on the road, et cetera. And I'll never forget the first time I worked with Steve Martin. We were down in a place called The Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta. And he was known to me from his work on the Smothers Brothers, as quite a funny man - intimidatingly so.

So, he was tooting his banjo in this narrow hallway to the dressing rooms. And when I walked by him, I didn't know what to say so I said nothing. But I got about four steps past him and I heard him say: Oh, pretty good. How are you?


MULL: At which point we became fast friends, and we've been great friends for 40 years. But he gave me the best advice ever for anyone in the performing arts. And that is this: Always take your wallet on stage.


MULL: Don't leave it in the dressing room.

SIMON: Fred.

WILLARD: I never got any advice in acting. And...


MULL: Yeah.

WILLARD: And it shows. But the advice I give is get up and do it anywhere you can. And someone once asked me, said, Fred, I'm asked to do these things - they're freebies, freebies. I said do them all.

First show ever did, the only one who came is the leading lady's husband who sat out in the audience. It was pouring rain, the first show I ever did. So never say, oh, there's not enough money or what kind of an audience? You know, just if you get an offer, go and do it.

SIMON: Yeah. Did you ever get any really bad advice?

MULL: Yes, I once opened for The Pointer Sisters in Washington, D.C.


MULL: A midnight show and the crowd was there definitely to see The Pointer Sisters...


MULL: ...not to see the little fat white boy.


MULL: And it came out that I realized this in about four seconds, got through my number really quickly and said thank you. Got up and walked off. The promoters said, listen to them clapping out there. They loved you. You go back. You go back.


MULL: And I went back and I actually heard the lady in the front row say, I told you not to clap so loud.


MULL: So the worst advice I ever got was go back out there. So when I did go back out, I heard say that, I just looked down in the cushions, found a quarter, put it in my pocket and walked back off the stage.


MULL: And that was it. That was the worst advice.

SIMON: You had a love scene recently.


MULL: OK, I will tell this. I'll cop to it. I'm old enough. I've earned the age. Why not? I'm on "Two and a Half Men," the scene is I'm supposed to be fixed up with Charlie Sheen's mother, who is roughly my age – my age is 68, hers is slightly less. They invite me to the house for a party and I show up with my own date. My own date is an ex-Miss Sweden, she's like 26, 27 years old, drop-dead gorgeous. I'm feeling pretty good about myself.


MULL: The door is supposed to open, and when it opens they said we want you in a deep, deep embrace and kiss.


MULL: OK. So I do it. The minute - they holler action; we're at the minute our lips touched. I wear hearing aids.


MULL: They have little pre-recorded messages in them to let you know about the battery situation and so forth and so on.


MULL: Right when our lips touch, I hear this pre-recorded female voice saying, battery low.


MULL: That was I think the last love scene of my career and it was well-narrated.


SIMON: How did you wind up - you wound up playing a couple, a married couple.

MULL: On "Roseanne.""

SIMON: On "Roseanne."

WILLARD: I'll tell you how that came about.


WILLARD: Martin was a regular on the "Roseanne" show and Tom Arnold, Roseanne's - one of her husbands, and she were big fans of "Fernwood," and we were talking to them. And I said, wouldn't it be funny, since Martin was kind of like my boss on "Fernwood," what if I came on as his boss? Oh, that's wonderful. That's wonderful. Then I got a call, they said, why don't you and Martin come on and you're gay lovers? And I said well, I...


WILLARD: No, I don't want to do that, just me. So a year later Martin called me. He said Fred, the writers asked me to call you. We want you to come on, we're two gay lovers, we get married and adopt a kid.


WILLARD: And I said that's too good to turn down.

MULL: Yeah.

WILLARD: Yes. I said let's do it. But I vowed, I said I'm going to go on and I'm not going to be the cliche, you know, flaming. We played it very real.

MULL: Yeah.

WILLARD: We were the first gay marriage on television. And but we played it very straight.

MULL: Very. Yeah.

WILLARD: And I said we're - and some, a few gay people would come up to me on the street and say, Mr. Willard, we appreciate how you, you know, didn't caricature it.

MULL: Yeah. Well, when Tom Arnold first approached me, he said, would you like to be on the "Roseanne" show, they were like number one in the market. So it was kind of a stupid question. I said, of course.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MULL: And he said you'll be playing her gay boss. And I thought to myself for a while, you know, the pros and cons. And then I realized, no one really believed that Eddie Murphy was Gumby.


MULL: Right?

SIMON: I hope that doesn't shatter anyone here.


SIMON: All right. I saved this for last.


SIMON: What do you mean to each other? What does this personal, professional relationship you've had for 35 years mean?

WILLARD: Well, let me say this, I have said any time, if it's Martin Mull, I will say yes. If it's Christopher Guest, I will say yes. Other people, no, I won't, you know, anything - if Martin called me for anything I'm there. I don't have to read the script; I don't have to hear what - if Martin Mull ask you to do it, yeah, of course.

MULL: There's something that I definitely feel with Fred and I feel with very few other people on the planet. There are certain friends that you haven't seen for a while and you have to do the old: remember when we used to, remember that time when we? There are certain people you can see after six months or a year and pick up right at the next second and just continue your journey. And to me that's the definition of a true friend.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thanks so much. This has been a wonderful evening.

MULL: My pleasure. Thank you for having us.

WILLARD: Thanks to all of you.


SIMON: Fred Willard, Martin Mull, speaking in Cleveland at a taping of the public television show "Backstage With." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!