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Actor Fred Willard Has Died From Natural Causes at 86

Was Fred Willard sick? Here's why the actor didn't take part in the 'Modern Family' finale and why they gave him such a sad send off before his death.

Jacqueline Gualtieri - Author

May 16 2020, Updated 5:41 p.m. ET

Modern Family started off as a comedy and they have the Emmys to prove it. But it's quickly become a lot more of a tearjerker than anything else. In Season 10, we saw the passing of DeDe Pritchett (Shelley Long,) Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson)'s mother. And Season 11 didn't back off from giving us heart-wrenching goodbyes.  

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In the final season, we said goodbye to Phil (Ty Burrell)'s father, Frank (Fred Willard,) a beloved character who has been a part of the show since Season 1. But why did Frank die? 

Was Fred Willard sick?

After seeing Fred on Modern Family in his final episode, some fans noted that he really didn't look very good. It could have just been really good makeup and Fred's acting skills making him seem like a frail, ill man, but it concerned fans nonetheless. 

At the time, the actor had not come forward to say anything about a decline in health.

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Source: instagram

However, on May 16, it was reported that Fred had died due to natural causes at the age of 86. Fred's rep Glenn Schwartz confirmed his death to Rolling Stone, and Fred's daughter, Hope Mulbarger, released a statement.

“My father passed away very peacefully last night at the fantastic age of 86 years old," she said. "He kept moving, working, and making us happy until the very end. We loved him so very much! We will miss him forever.”

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Jamie Lee Curtis, who is married to Fred's former director, Christopher Guest, also tweeted out, “How lucky that we all got to enjoy Fred Willard’s gifts. He is with his missed Mary now. Thanks for the deep belly laughs Mr. Willard.” 

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Fred's wife, Mary, died in 2018. According to Radar Online, friends say that he's said he can't go on without her and has lost his will to live. Grief can be a powerful thing and it's possible that may be a big reason why he looked ill.

Still, Fred hadn't slowed down from acting. He's part of Netflix's upcoming workplace comedy, Space Force, about a team that is tasked with forming the sixth branch of the armed services, Space Force. The show was co-created by Steve Carrell and The Office creator Greg Daniels and is expected to premiere in 2020.

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So, why was Frank killed off on 'Modern Family'?

In the Jan. 15 episode of Modern Family, Phil received the news that his father was seen wandering around a grocery store. Thinking that his father was stricken with dementia, he went to visit him and discovered that Frank was not losing his memory. He just missed working. In earlier episodes, we learned that Frank used to own a grocery store. 

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This led Phil to ask, "Did you and Mom ever want another child?...If you had another kid, maybe he would have taken over the business and you wouldn't have had to sell."

Frank replied that, no, he had never thought that because Phil had taken over the family business. "Well you did take over the family business, didn't you?" he said. "Keeping life light, making it fun for everybody."

We then saw Phil in a confessional, talking about how his dad was the "cool dad" growing up and how lucky he was. He then clarified that the scene with his father was the last time he'd ever see him. In the next shot, we saw Phil giving his father's eulogy. 

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Source: YouTube

The episode is titled "Legacy," a fitting name. It was a chance to say goodbye to a beloved character while also seeing Phil's story throughout the series play out and, in a way, come to its own end. Throughout the show, Phil had always tried to be the "cool dad", tried to know his kids' lingo and be the fun parent, sometimes to Claire's chagrin.

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In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, co-creator of Modern Family Christopher Lloyd said of Frank's death, "We are in the final season, we’re looking to find more meaningful topics to deal with. And even more important than that, it gave us a chance to really take a look at how Phil came to be Phil. Phil has, in many ways, been really dead-center of the heart of the show...He learned this from his dad, that somebody can be the one who keeps life light."

While we got glimpses into his relationship with his father over the years, this was the first time that it was really fully addressed that Phil would carry on his father's legacy. 

Our thoughts are with Fred's family and friends during this difficult time. 

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