Free Fred!

Fred Willard: Arrested in a Post Pee-wee Herman Universe

Fred Willard will not suffer the same condemnation Pee-wee Herman did, writes Tricia Romano.

Stephen J. Cohen, WireImage / Getty Images

Fred Willard’s arrest on Wednesday night at the Tiki Theater in Hollywood for suspicion of engaging in a misdemeanor lewd act, or, in plain speak, allegedly masturbating in public at an adult-movie theater, quickly proved to provide a wellspring of material for the Internet.

The reaction to the 78-year-old Willard being possibly caught red-handed ran the gamut from helpful to concerned to informative and impressed. Many of the commenters were worried that Willard didn’t know about Internet, despite the fact that he has a Twitter handle.

For instance, @shawnlevy quipped, “Launching a Kickstarter to buy Fred Willard a modem.” Even fellow comic Albert Brooks got in the act: “I love Fred Willard. He’s a great guy. For his birthday I’m getting him a den and a computer.”

Perhaps more shocking than Willard being popped was the fact that these theaters still exist at all (and that anyone goes to them).

It appeared that most people thought the arrest was stupid and the entire affair was hilarious, and only served to boost Willard’s cool cred, finding ways to tie in Willard’s arrest with future Christopher Guest movies and his upcoming flick, the unfortunately (or perhaps, perfectly) titled, The Yank.

Yet at least one group of people was not as amused. TMZ broke the news that PBS had fired Willard as the host of the soon-to-be-aired Market Warriors—a spin-off of Antiques Roadshow with professional shoppers—and would be dubbing over Willard’s narration with Roadshow’s Mark Walberg instead. The New York Times’ report quoted Jeanne Hopkins, a spokeswoman for WGBH, the PBS affiliate that produces the show, who wrote in an email: “Given the unfortunate news reported today, effective immediately, Fred Willard no longer will be involved with the Market Warriors series.’”

Willard, through his lawyer, Paul Takakjian, released a statement published by TMZ that said: “With all due respect to the individual officer, our belief is that Fred did nothing in any violation of any law. We will be working vigorously to clear his name in this matter.”

With his arrest, Willard, joins a long line of celebrities ensnared in sex scandals: Hugh Grant, Eddie Murphy, Danny Bonaduce, among many others.

But Willard’s got a few things in common with another star who was caught with his pants down in an adult-movie theater. In 1991 Paul Reubens, then known to the world as Pee-wee Herman, the lead character of a twisted kids’ show and subsequent films, was found masturbating in an adult theater in Sarasota, Fla. Until Reubens’s/Pee-wee’s recent comeback, it was a career-ending moment: He was mostly known as a kids’ show actor (albeit, the sort of program that hip parents liked), and he had immersed himself in the Pee-wee character. The mug shots, which showed Reubens—then 39—out of Pee-wee drag, didn’t help. He was unshaven, with a goatee and long, scraggly hair, and looked miserable and not a little creepy.

Save for a triumphant return at the best possible place for outlaws and oddballs, the MTV Music Awards, where he made a surprise appearance in costume and giggled: “Heard any good jokes lately? What was that one? Oh, so funny I forgot to laugh!” Reubens’s career came to a skidding halt.

Post-arrest, there was much handwringing. The headlines blared: “Who Killed Pee-wee Herman?” and “Pee Wee [sic]: Will His Career Be Ruined?

Even The New York Times reported that his career was in a freefall: “Final episodes of his CBS television program, which was already scheduled to go off the air, were not broadcast, and Pee-wee Herman toys were quickly removed from the shelves of stores around the country.”

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Many of his peers in the entertainment industry thought he was being hung out to dry; Entertainment Weekly magazine quoted Annette Funicello and Zsa Zsa Gabor offering their support. Funicello: “What is the big deal? He has given so much pleasure to little kids, and what they’re doing to him is sad. I like him a lot. If I were able to call him now, I would say, ‘So many people are on your side. We love you. Just hang in there—it will blow over. These things do.” But back then, Twitter did not exist, so the mainstream decided the narrative.

The stain of Reubens’s dirty deed (which he still claims never happened) lingered longer than it might have otherwise; he was also arrested 10 years later for possession of erotica and porn after police erroneously raided his house, ultimately pleading guilty to a misdemeanor of possessing obscene material. (In a celebrity snake-eating-its-own-tail moment, Reubens was initially accused of possessing child pornography, attributed his alleged ownership of the Rob Lowe sex tape, which featured Lowe’s tryst with a 16-year old during the 1988 Democratic National Convention).

I had an experience with Pee-wee prejudice myself: In 2010, a totally innocuous article I had been assigned to write about his revival play in Los Angeles for a family-friendly airline magazine was killed after Reubens was deemed not squeaky clean enough for the airline’s readership. (The airline killed it, not the magazine’s editors.)

Willard, on the other hand, is always playing a character riffing on his persona in Christopher Guest-helmed movies like This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, and he’s only an occasional guest on children’s shows like Wizards of Waverly Place. Willard’s characters are daft, goofy, and ultimately charming. And let’s face it: there’s something triumphant about an older man still able to get it up at all.

Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton gave Willard a thumbs up (or is it a five-fingered salute?). Over instant messenger, Hilton wrote: “The man is a great actor and he’s 78! He can jerk off all he wants at the porno theater! Shouldn’t you be able to get naked at an adult establishment? Hell yeah!” He added: “He should be popping pills and fucking hookers! At that age you have carte blanche to do whatever you want!”

Indeed, Willard is old enough to have been on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Pat Boone Show, and Get Smart! His former boss and costar Roseanne Barr—who’s worked with him many times over the years, including on Roseanne—wrote over email: “Fred is a great comic actor. Are we all under constant surveillance these days?”

Judging by the reaction on the Internet, the public is fully behind him. Buzzfeed already put up a post titled "19 Reasons Why Fred Willard Should Be Able To Do Whatever He Wants." (Reason No. 7: “He can pull off smoking a pipe.”)

Eric Burns-White ‏@demiurgent summed up the pro-Willard sentiment in the blogosphere, invoking one of the actor’s most famous parts: “When Paul Reubens was arrested for public lewdness, we were all a bit skeeved. Fred Willard I feel weirdly proud of. ‘Fernwood TONIGHT!’”