Once upon a time, Fred Willard starred in the classic comedy Best in Show, about dogs and their ridiculous owners.
Then, 18 years later, he was recruited to help judge and provide commentary for a dog-related date on The Bachelor, and thus began a beautiful if unlikely friendship between one actor and one franchise.
Willard has now participated in two seasons of The Bachelor and two seasons of The Bachelorette, including the group date in tonight's episode of The Bachelorette in which Hannah Brown and her guys go roller derby-ing.
"He knows nothing about roller derby, but no one else does either," host Chris Harrison told E! News when we exclusively visited the set of the date. "I think that's what's going to be so good."
So how exactly did this friendship come to be, and how did it expand beyond just dogs? We got the inside scoop from some people involved, including Harrison, Willard, and executive producer Bennett S. Graebner.
"So on Arie's season, we wanted to do this date with dogs…it was similar to Best in Show, and we knew we needed a little help. We needed a little extra kind of celebrity assistance outside of Chris Harrison. Chris Harrison is great but sometimes he actually needs someone to talk to," Graebner tells us. "We thought, of course, who better than Fred Willard, who was such a character in Best in Show? We called him up, turns out he lives in LA, available, he was really a laugh riot. Chris loved working with him. We loved working with him. He was full of funny little anecdotes. I wouldn't say he was a student of The Bachelor, it's not like he watched the show religiously before he came to work with us, and yet he seemed like he had been a member of Bachelor Nation forever."
Becca Kufrin's season of The Bachelorette featured a dodgeball game, and while Fred Willard has nothing to do with dodgeball, producers thought, "why not bring Fred again?"
"And again, he was great and he was really fun and he gave it a fresh spin that we felt like were lacking on some of the big group dates," Graebner says. "And then the following season, with Colton, we did World's Strongest Woman. We had Terry Crews and his wife, and they were fantastic, but again we thought it needed a little bit of commentary from Fred and Chris...so that's when we finally knew that Fred Willard was a member of Bachelor Nation and forever would be."
It's gotten to the point where Willard is a consideration when planning the season.
"Now when we're talking to the Bachelor or Bachelorette and putting together dates for the next season, we always talk about where can we put Fred Willard?" Graebner continues. "One day we'll just put him in a romantic one-on-one date and just have him do the commentary for that. Why not?"
Harrison says he and Graebner actually made a deal after that first dog date to bring Fred back whenever possible.
"We love Fred so much...we said if Fred will ever come back, we're going to have him back every season until he just gets tired of us and says no," Harrison tells us. "He's a legend. He's an absolute legend. He's a comedic legend. His timing is amazing. To sit next to him is an absolute honor, so any time I can do it, I'm bringing him in."
Harrison and Willard had never met before, but Willard was flattered by the fact that Harrison loved working with him so much.
"I had never met Chris before, but he obviously enjoys working with me or I'm sure he would say, let's not have him back," Willard says. "It's very flattering when someone like that, you find out they not only know who you are, but, 'I'd love to work with him, let's have him on,' so that's a lot of fun."
It doesn't sound like Willard will tire of the gig anytime soon, because he says he loves it.
"It's a lot of fun doing this, because I watch the Bachelors or the Bachelorettes doing such incredible athletic things, and it's exciting," Willard tells us. "It's really fun. I'm always pleased that they ask me to come in and watch these things. It's like having a front row seat to the things, rather than watching it on TV. You see how it's done."
He particularly loves watching the athletic challenges, like the World's Strongest Woman date, and says Colton Underwood is currently his favorite of the Bachelor stars he's worked with.
His family's also both amazed and delighted. Willard says that every time they hear he's going back on the show, they joke about him going on a date. Graebner described a time when he thought a group of people were loitering near filming and then discovered they were actually Fred's family.
"They could not have been sweeter, and they said, 'Thank you so much for bringing him into your world. It's so great. This is something we never could have anticipated,' Graebner recalls. "It was just so nice to see."
Willard joins a long list of somewhat random celebrities who have joined the franchise for an episode or two, but few have stuck around, or have been of the comedic caliber of Fred Willard.
"We're always really excited to have someone on the show who feels like they wouldn't necessarily walk into The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, and Fred was one of those people." Graebner says. "We felt the same way when Ice Cube was on a date, I never thought Ice Cube would be on a date on The Bachelor and there he was and I was thrilled. I do think Fred had a lot of fans that [first] day, not just out there in the audience, but also on the staff. People were really excited to see him."
Based on what we've seen so far (since we were there, and all), tonight's roller derby date will be ripe for both commentary and drama, as medics were standing by and it's actually a question of whether the guys can stay on their feet in their skates. Roller derby is no joke, though that shouldn't be a problem for the legendary Fred Willard.
Hit play on the video above to hear more from the star.
The Bachelorette airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on ABC.