Willard was born in 1939 and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio. His father, also named Fred Willard, worked at the financial department of a bank. His father died in 1951. Willard is a former U.S. soldier, having graduated from the Kentucky Military Institute and the Virginia Military Institute. After his tour in the Army, in 1962, Willard and pal Vic Greco formed a comedy act that was funny and successful enough to earn them an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The duo appeared at the hungry i in San Francisco. Willard auditioned alongside Robert Klein for The Second City, portraying a nightclub manager and his employee. The audition helped the two secure the job. He starred off-Broadway in Jules Feiffer's Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin. He was a founding member of the improvisational comedy group Ace Trucking Company. Fellow members of Ace included Michael Mislove, Bill Saluga, George Memmoli, and Patti Deutsch. They appeared regularly on This is Tom Jones.
Willard's film debut was in the 1967 exploitation film Teenage Mother. In a brief interview on the DVD extras of the 2007 documentary film Heckler, Willard reports that the audience at one screening of the film booed when his character interrupted an attempted sexual assault of the female lead character.
Willard achieved wider fame in 1977 and '78 as Martin Mull's sidekick and announcer, "Jerry Hubbard", on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman spinoffs Fernwood 2 Night, Forever Fernwood, and America 2-Night, which parodied the nighttime talk shows of the day. He was an original cast member of the NBC series Real People in 1979 and again from 1981 to 1983. He played Tom Osbourne in the 1987 Academy Award–winning short film, Ray's Male Heterosexual Dance Hall. From 1987 to 1989, he starred as a bartender/straightman in Sid and Marty Krofft's D.C. Follies, and was host to the Krofft puppets portraying political figures of the time. In 1990 Willard hosted the cable TV show Access America on the Ha! Comedy Network. As part of that show, he appeared September 21, 1990, on Episode #7 of the cult public-access television show Decoupage with Summer Caprice. In 1995 Willard reunited with his Fernwood co-star playing Scott, the romantic partner of Mull's character Leon Carp, on Roseanne. The couple married in the episode "December Bride," and Scott became a recurring character during the series' final two seasons. That same year, Willard guest-starred in three episodes of Sister, Sister, starring Tia and Tamera Mowry; Willard played Carl Mitushka, a teacher at Roosevelt High who often spoke popular teenage slang terms in order to sound cool to his students. Willard guest-voiced a 1999 episode of The Simpsons titled "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday" as Wally Kogen, a travel agent. From 2001 to 2002, he played the father of five children on Maybe It's Me. He has also guest-starred in an episode of The Weird Al Show. He and Mull joined up again for the mockumentary The History of White People in America. He played Mayor Deebs in Roxanne, starring Steve Martin; his character's line "I would rather be with the people of this town than with the finest people in the world" has been widely quoted.
His most recent notable work has been in Christopher Guest films, such as A Mighty Wind, in which he played "Mike LaFontaine," a character known for his catchphrase, "Eh? Wha' happened?"; Best in Show, in which he portrayed "Buck Laughlin," a dog show announcer who offered up an unending stream of bad jokes and off-color comments; Waiting for Guffman, in which he played "Ron Albertson," a travel agent who performs in amateur stage productions with his wife; This Is Spinal Tap, in which he played a lieutenant on the military base where Spinal Tap play; and For Your Consideration as an obnoxious entertainment television show anchor. For his performance in Waiting for Guffman he received an American Comedy Award nomination and a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Funniest Supporting Actor. He received the Boston Film Critics Award, an American Comedy Award, a Sierra Award and a tribute from AFI for his portrayal as Buck Laughlin in Best in Show. He also appeared in American Wedding, and as KVWN news director Ed Harken in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
Willard had a recurring role as "Hank MacDougall" on the later seasons of CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for this role in 2003, 2004, and 2005. Willard was also the host of a VH1 documentary series called Totally Obsessed about people obsessed with their hobbies. He appears as "Captain Ribmanman" in Episode 21 of Channel Frederator, a podcast from Kansas. Willard also landed a role on Family Guy as Dave Campbell, the father of a nudist family (first appearing in "From Method to Madness"). It is unclear whether the role will be reprised. Willard also voiced "Officer Brown" in King of the Hill and made an appearance on That '70s Show. Willard appeared in 100 sketches on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, as a government official, businessman, or other authority figure named Willard J. Fredericks, who is always drinking. In 2006 he voiced Dad in the Academy Award-nominated animated film Monster House. He also hosted Saturday Night Live in 1978 (musical guest: Devo) and appeared twice on MADtv. Two years before this, he made a minor appearance in the movie Silver Streak as a bemused railroad train master.
He was the voice of a clueless companion to a lazy robot (Martin Mull) in one episode of the series Dexter's Laboratory and guest-starred on the Adult Swim cartoon Tom Goes to the Mayor. He acted in the Cartoon Network movie Re-Animated and played Vala Mal Doran's "father" in an episode of Stargate SG-1 in 2007. He appeared in an episode of the Adult Swim program Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. He has also starred as the "Boogie Man" in an episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy and reprised his role in the movie Billy & Mandy's Big Boogey Adventure. His final appearance as "Boogey" occurred in Billy & Mandy: Wrath of the Spider Queen. In 2007 he made a guest appearance on the children's TV series Come on Over. He has also guest-starred on an episode of The Boondocks, providing the voice of "Joe Petto." In 2008 he guest starred on Transformers Animated as the Decepticon arms dealer Swindle.
Willard was cast as a sportscaster in the television series Back to You, which premiered on the Fox Network on September 19, 2007. He also made an appearance in the 2007 sci-fi comedy I'll Believe You, and he plays Shelby Forthright, the CEO of the Buy 'n' Large Corporation, in the first ever live-action speaking segments by Pixar in the animated film WALL-E.
Willard completed a sold-out run of Fred Willard: Alone At Last!, advertised as a "one-man show" but actually featuring a cast of ten, and received Los Angeles Artistic Director Awards for Best Comedy and Best Production. Willard has several stage roles to his credit, including Off-Broadway performances in Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin, and Arf, directed by Richard Benjamin. His regional roles include Call Me Madam in Chicago and the musicals Promises, Promises, with Jason Alexander, and Anything Goes with Rachel York, both in Los Angeles. He starred in Wendy Wasserstein's Isn't It Romantic and off Broadway in Elvis and Juliet. He has completed a RiffTrax with Michael J. Nelson for the movie Missile to the Moon.
He was seen roasting William Shatner in the Comedy Central special The Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner on August 12, 2006. Also at the roast was George Takei, with whom Willard performed in the improv show Thank God You're Here.
Willard is the voice of the character "Ed Warmer" in the PlayStation Portable game Hot Brain.
In 2007 Willard took the role of "Aslo" in Epic Movie.
Willard was part of the one-night celebrity-performed staging of Howard Ashman's unproduced musical Dreamstuff. The musical was reimagined by Ashman's partners Marsha Malamet and Dennis Green and performed one night only at Los Angeles's Hayworth Theatre as part of the Bruno Kirby celebrity reading series, directed by Ugly Betty's Michael Urie. Willard starred in the show alongside Eden Espinosa, Vicki Lewis, David Blue, and Luke Macfarlane.
On October 5, 2008, he hosted the Nickelodeon Fido Awards.
In 2009 he played Mr Ferguson in Youth in Revolt starring Michael Cera.
Willard played Frank Dunphy, father of Phil (Ty Burrell), in several episodes of the show Modern Family. For his performance, he was nominated at the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
On September 16, 2011, Willard was honored as Pioneer in Comedy at Burbank International Film Festival. Willard was also hired as the LaQuinta spokesperson for a series of commercials airing in 2012.
In 2011 Willard appeared in a movie called 12 Wishes of Christmas with Elisa Donovan, Gabrielle Carteris, and Sarah Thompson.
In 2012 he played Al Kaiser in the Rob Reiner film The Magic of Belle Isle starring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen.
In July 2012 Willard served as host for the PBS series Market Warriors, described as a nationwide treasure hunt along the lines of American Pickers, but was dropped after his 2012 arrest for indecent exposure.
He completed The Birder starring Tom Cavanagh, opening in 2013. A mild-mannered birder seeks revenge on a younger rival, after losing the highly coveted Head of Ornithology position at the National Park.
Willard joined Ed Begley Jr. and Michael McKean for the HBO documentary-style comedy Family Tree from Christopher Guest.
In 2013 he played the role of "Alter Pierce" in one of Abed's happy places on the season-four premiere episode "History 101" of Community.
Willard made an appearance on the second season of Celebrity Family Feud playing against actor Kevin McHale.
Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters presented Willard with the Art Gilmore Career Achievement Award at their celebrity luncheon on June 19, 2015.
Willard introduced Danny Kaye's movie The Court Jester at the TCM Festival in 2017. He expressed his lifelong admiration for Danny Kaye.
For his considerable, ongoing dedication to charity works with various nonprofits Big Brothers / Big Sisters, Fred and his wife, Mary, were honored in 2010 with the Golden Star Award. Fred was also honored by Actors and Others for Animals with the Man of The Year Award in 2008, and the couple also works with City of Hope, John Wayne Cancer Society, PETA and dozens more, Fred received a commendation from the City of Los Angeles and Mayor Antonio Villaraigarosa for "outstanding humanitarian and philanthropic work helps to further the goal of making the City of Los Angeles a better place."
Willard married his wife, Mary in 1968. They have one daughter: Hope (b. 1969) and a grandson Freddie (b. 1997).
On July 18, 2012, Willard was arrested in Hollywood for "engaging in a lewd act" in an adult movie theater. PBS fired Willard from Market Warriors immediately following his arrest, and Mark L. Walberg replaced him on the show. In an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon shortly thereafter, Willard stated that the incident was "very painful" and "very embarrassing," but that he "did nothing wrong." Willard was ultimately not charged, but was required to take a $380 sex education diversion program.