Just two months after passing away at the age of 86, Fred Willard received a posthumous Emmy nomination for his guest role as Phil’s (Ty Burrell) father Frank Dunphy on the 11th and final season of ABC’s “Modern Family,” which comes 10 years after his first and only other bid for the series. Also a three-time nominee for his guest turn on “Everybody Loves Raymond” (2003-05), Willard received all five of his Primetime Emmy noms in the Best Comedy Guest Actor category, in which he now ties Nathan Lane as the individual with the most citations.
The late actor contends for the 11th episode, “Legacy,” in which Phil visits his father in Florida after he was found roaming around the grocery store he once owned. In the diner that he and his late wife would frequent, Frank meets his son, who is unable to broach his father’s worrisome condition, as he thoroughly deflects to keep any negative energy at bay. After Frank drives over a pothole, he and Phil try to repair the car, but everything goes wrong and it’s flipped over instead, leaving the two without a vehicle until a married couple eventually offers to give them a ride.
While cutting his hair, Phil finally gets through to his father, who admits to just missing his old store. This prompts Phil to ask whether Frank would have wanted an additional child who could have potentially taken over the business, but his father assures him that he did take it over by always adding sunshine to the community and keeping life light. It’s then revealed that this was Phil’s last day with his father, who dies of old age shortly after, and whose memorial closes out the episode.
Will the legendary actor receive an equally bittersweet sendoff from Emmy voters with his first victory? Let’s dive into the pros and cons.
For Emmy voters, this would be an opportunity to not only send off an actor who leaves behind a legacy of 54 years in the industry, but also to finally crown him a Primetime Emmy champion (he won a Daytime Emmy in Best Special Drama Guest Performer for “The Bold and the Beautiful” in 2015). As aforementioned, he’s tied with his former “Modern Family” colleague Lane — who was shortlisted three times for the series (2011, 2013-14) — as the most nominated performer in this category with five bids, and if he doesn’t triumph this year, he would also tie him as performer with the most bids without a victory. This is an unfortunate record Willard’s peers in the TV academy might not want the late actor to set.
“Legacy” aired on Jan. 15, exactly four months before Willard’s passing, but it’s obviously taken on an even more significant meaning since. If voters conscientiously watch this installment, they will get to witness the actor pull off the high-wire act of balancing comedy and drama with ease. In his final scene with Burrell in the barbershop, this ability is particularly highlighted as Willard fills a line as serious and honest as “I suppose all parents wonder how things would have changed if they had a different child” with such levity that it brings a smile to your face. The fact that his character then pours out his admiration for his son on their last day together is the type of emotional gut punch that could sway sentimental voters to check him off.
A five-time Best Comedy Series champ (2009-14), “Modern Family” is already a recipient of six acting Emmys, including two for Burrell (2011, ’14). Although it didn’t return to the comedy series lineup this year, it did snag two other noms for sound mixing and directing — the former for “Finale: Part 1;” the latter, “Part 2.” While this is a rather small farewell hug for the series, it’s worth noting that Willard produced its first acting nom since Burrell in 2017 and Gail Mancuso its first directing nom since herself in 2014. If voters want to send off the groundbreaking series with one last victory, comedy guest actor for Willard seems like the prime category to do so.
While Anthony Bourdain has won four posthumous Emmys the past two years for “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” the last posthumous victory for a performer was in 1995, when Raul Julia triumphed in Best Limited Series/TV Movie Actor for the telefilm “The Burning Season.” The last late actor who tried to defy the odds was Carrie Fisher in Best Comedy Guest Actress for “Catastrophe” in 2017, but she fell to “Saturday Night Live’s” Melissa McCarthy. Emmy voters aren’t always sentimental, which is also why we frequently see overdue actors — Phylicia Rashad (“This Is Us,” Best Drama Guest Actress) and Sandra Oh (“Killing Eve,” Best Drama Actress) just last year — lose their categories despite being the forecasted front-runners.
The last time “Modern Family” netted an acting Emmy was for Burrell in 2014 — when it won the comedy series prize for the fifth and final time — so that might not bode well for Willard, who faces stiff competition from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” Luke Kirby, “Modern Love’s” Dev Patel, and “SNL’s” Adam Driver, Eddie Murphy and Brad Pitt. “Modern Family’s” one acting nom this year pales in comparison to “Maisel’s” seven and “SNL’s” eight, with the former fresh off a win for Kirby and the latter already a five-time champ in this category, most recently for Dave Chappelle in 2017.
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