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The Ombudsman Column

Fred Willard: On Not Listening to Your Wife

The big news about PBS while I was away these past couple of weeks unfolded, of all places, in an adult movie theater on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood on Wednesday evening, July 18. It was there, inside the Tiki Theater, that well-known actor and comedian Fred Willard was arrested.

As reported in The New York Times, "Officer Rosario Herrera of the Los Angeles Police Department said Mr. Willard was arrested about 8:50 p.m. Wednesday after he was seen 'engaging in a lewd act' by vice officers on routine inspection" of the theater. Willard was booked and then released from custody. A more descriptive account appeared earlier on the celebrity news and gossip site TMZ.

Just two days before his arrest, a new weekly PBS program — a 20-episode series called "Market Warriors" that is a spinoff of the long-running "Antiques Roadshow" — made its television debut with Willard, who is either 78 or 72 according to many conflicting accounts, as the unseen but smart and sassy narrator.

Within 24 hours of his arrest, Willard had lost his job. On Thursday, Jeanne Hopkins, vice-president for communications and government relations at WGBH, the PBS producing station in Boston, said: "Given the unfortunate news reported today, effective immediately Fred Willard will no longer be involved with the 'Market Warrior' series. It's something we felt important to decide, and given the trust of our audiences, we wanted to move forward."

Mark Walberg, the long-time host of Antiques Roadshow, it was announced, will re-record the episodes of the series that had already been taped by Willard.

On Saturday, July 21, PBS CEO Paula Kerger was asked about Willard's firing at the Television Critics Association's annual summer press gathering in Los Angeles and added: "We actually needed to move fast because we're taping now. It's a new series and our concern really is that [Willard's] circumstance would become a distraction to the series, which we're hoping will have an ongoing presence on public television."

Not Popular Among Those Who Wrote to Me

In the aftermath of his firing, I received about three dozen emails from viewers. They were all critical of the actions of PBS and WGBH. Here's a sample from Douglas McEwan of Los Angeles:

"I am revolted and disgusted by the abrupt firing of Fred Willard for merely being arrested — NOT CONVICTED! — of a ridiculous excuse for a crime. Apparently PBS does not believe in the Great American Principle: "Innocent Until PROVEN Guilty." I found Paula Kerger's statement that Willard's rights were tossed out the window to "avoid distraction" HIGHLY offensive and UN-American. You needn't bother me with any more pledge drives, because unless Fred is rehired and apologized to publically, I will never again donate another PENNY to PBS. I will certainly never again watch MARKET WARRIORS. PBS should be DEEPLY ashamed of itself. You have lost me as a supporter, one going back over 40 years. May you all [should] be fired for no reason as well and see how you like it."

Some commentators such as Time magazine's James Poniewozik and pop culture critic Ken Tucker also took issue with the PBS/WGBH action against Willard.

There are more aspects to this story that I will get to farther down in this column, including, most importantly, Willard and his lawyer's claims of innocence.

But I should say at this point that I'm not among PBS's critics on this matter. Willard is quite a famous and public person and, like many other celebrities and public figures, they represent, fairly or not, institutions in the mind of the public. In this case, I think Willard, whatever he did in the Tiki — which has a poster in front alerting customers that the theater is "viewed by LAPD" — took PBS's reputation in with him, and that PBS, under the circumstances at the time, was justified in its action.

Willard is a highly acclaimed performer with a long list of credits — including a memorable role as the announcer in the dog show put-down film "Best in Show" and three Emmy nominations for his TV work on "Everybody Loves Raymond" and a fourth for his role on "Modern Family." He earned acclaim for other so-called "mockumentary" films including "This is Spinal Tap," "Waiting for Guffman" and "A Mighty Wind."

He also has an irrepressible sense of humor.

On Not Listening to His Wife

Appearing on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" show this past Thursday, as reported by MSNBC, Willard started out this way: "You know, let me say this: It's the last time I'm going to listen to my wife when she says: 'Why don't you go out and see a movie?'"

As for the movie in question, Willard, as reported by MSNBC, insisted to Fallon that he didn't exactly plan that excursion. "The whole adult theater thing — I thought they were gone!" he said. "And I see this one, it has such a Polynesian, exotic look to it. I said, 'Maybe there's hula dancers in here. Maybe there's mai tais.' I went in, and I realized I was the only one awake and sober and conscious . . . It was like a trip down Alice in Wonderland — down the rabbit hole."

And just as innocent, as far as he's concerned. "It's embarrassing as hell, but let me say this: Nothing happened," Willard explained. "I did nothing wrong. Everything's being sorted out as we speak." The actor admitted that though he's "tried to laugh it off," it's been a painful ordeal for him. And from his recollection of the outing, it definitely wasn't worth it, as reported by MSNBC.

Willard's lawyer, Paul Takakjian, also said the actor did nothing wrong. "With all due respect to the individual officer, our belief [is] that Fred did nothing in any violation of the law. We will be working vigorously to clear his name in this matter," he told The Los Angeles Times.

The owner of the theater has told reporters that he didn't see anything and that vice-squad officers have inspected the theater 40 times and made 23 arrests since November.

On Monday, July 30, Willard tweeted "Wait til u hear my version; much more PG & my review, lousy film, but theater would make a terrific racquetball court. Full story 2 follow."

Get Out of Jail (Almost) Free

But here's another side of the story.

On July 20, two days after his arrest, The Associated Press reported that, "Willard will be allowed to enroll in counseling courses to resolve a lewd conduct arrest that cost the actor a television job. The Los Angeles City Attorney's Office determined Friday that Willard's case was eligible for a diversion program that will keep him from being formally charged with lewd conduct if he completes the required courses, said spokesman Frank Mateljan."

Subsequently, the AP reported: "In announcing Friday that Fred Willard will not have to face jail time after being arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct, the Los Angeles prosecutor revealed that the actor had been arrested on a similar charge two decades earlier.

"The L.A. prosecutor said Willard was arrested in 1990 on lewd conduct charges but did not reveal details or the disposition of the case. Despite that earlier incident, Willard will be able to enroll in a 'pre-filing diversion program' in lieu of a criminal filing, said Frank Mateljan, spokesman for City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.

"The program is administered by an outside vendor and costs about $380. There are diversion programs for a variety of offenses, including drug and alcohol abuse in addition to sex-related crimes.

"'I want to stress this was and is a filable case, and should the defendant choose not to enroll or not complete the program, we have the option of filing criminal charges within a year. Should he complete the course, we will consider the matter closed,'" Mateljan said.

Not a Good Few Weeks for Willard

In another tweet several days after his arrest, Willard wrote: "I was not fired from TUWYL so B sure 2 watch Trust Us Wtih [sic] your life Tues, ABC 9." But on July 31, it was reported that ABC had cancelled the program, a summertime improvisational talk-comedy show that Willard had been hosting. The show was falling in ratings and some industry publications such as TV Guide speculated that it was probably the rating rather than the arrest that caused the second cancellation of a Willard series. Maybe.

Earlier this week, I asked Jeanne Hopkins of WGBH about the initial decision, whether anyone had talked with Willard before the decision, and whether there was what is sometimes called a "morals clause" in his contract with the program. Such clauses relating to standards and behavior are not uncommon and can come into play when a celebrity, for example, acts in an uncharacteristic way that negatively affects one or both parties. I also asked if they had pulled the already broadcast first episode of Market Warriors, with Willard's voice narration, from the website since several viewers had also complained about that. I also asked if they knew how old Willard is.

She said, "It was a difficult decision to make. The series had just premiered. We were still in production and this situation was a distraction to all of us. We felt it was best to move on. We did speak to Fred before we shared the decision publicly. And yes, we removed the [first] program [from the web]. We asked Mark Walberg, host of Antiques Roadshow, to step-in and we had him re-narrate the first episode as well as those going forward so they would be consistent."

Regarding his age, she said, "We are not sure." As for my question about any behavior or morals clause in the contract, she said, "We don't share specifics about contracts, but our action was in keeping with it."