For decades, Fred Willard was the go-to guy for an authority figure who failed upwards, an out-of-touch but well-meaning dad, or just a straight man who could be funny merely by reacting honestly, a la Leslie Nielsen. But Willard, who died on May 15, shined brightest when he was allowed a full character to inhabit and make his own, which he was often granted in the heavily-improvised films of Christopher Guest.

Rather than scripting Willard as an aggressively kooky or square dork using outdated slang, films like Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and even his brief appearance in Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap granted Willard space to create characters who didn't have to be aggressively pathetic, corny, or fundamentally awful people to earn laughs; Willard gave them a relentlessly upbeat lightness that allowed their darkness to be implied, and then gradually amplified by the details he would add.

That contrast and implication is at the heart of all of Willard's most memorable characters. In This is Spinal Tap, no one has to say that his chatty colonel has bad taste for recommending a band with a residency at a Ramada Inn, or deny that his barely-shaggy haircut would lead to him being confused with a band member. His confidence and gentle enthusiasm suggests an amiable but probably not terribly interesting man who generally enjoys his middle of the road existence, which is anathema to our ambitious heavy metal leads. And he does it all with a smile.

That confidence grows by leaps and bounds in Best in Show, where Willard plays Buck Laughlin, who handles color commentary duties at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show. It's implied that this isn't Buck's first time filling this role, despite gleeful ignorance of essentially any fact regarding dogs or dog shows. He often derails the commentary to ask increasingly deranged questions, highlighted by goading his co-host into guessing how much Buck can bench. He also manages to use format of the dog show to lament his lack of success with women, suggest that the dogs wear costumes stereotypical of their breeds, and demands information on their running speeds. Buck lives in his own world and he genuinely loves it.

Waiting for Guffman is something of the dark horse of the top-tier Christopher Guest films, owing to being smaller-scale than some of his other work and community theater as perhaps more a specific world to explore. But it's here that Willard gets to shine the most, alongside the great Catherine O'Hara as married travel agents who have never left their hometown in Missouri. He's outgoing, outwardly fond of small town life, endearingly awful at impressions, and apparently quite well-hung, but none of the movie's fun is derived from raining on his parade.

Honorable mention goes to his work in A Mighty Wind as Mike LaFontaine, a talent manager and failed television actor who will still happily deliver his catchphrase ("Hey, wha' happen?") for anyone who will listen. There are many easy routes to take to make fun of a one-hit wonder for clinging to their past glories, but Willard plays it as a badge of honor, that we should all be so lucky to have been featured on a forgotten sitcom. As with all of his best roles, there was always a meaner, more pessimistic way he could have played the character, but for Fred Willard, the exuberant always outweighed the unpleasant.