Oregon native, 'Modern Family' star, feels lucky
By JEFF DUEWEL
Of the Grants Pass Daily Courier
GRANTS PASS — Ty Burrell thought about his place in television, playing the well-meaning but goofy Phil Dunphy in the comedy smash “Modern Family.” His conclusion was simple: “I feel so lucky. I am so lucky.”
The 45-year-old actor was born in Grants Pass and grew up in the Applegate Valley, graduated from Hidden Valley High School and spent more than a decade as a journeyman actor before striking gold with “Modern Family.”
The show, about the members of an extended family, has won three consecutive Emmy awards for best comedy since launching in September 2009. It airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC. Burrell won an Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy in 2011.
Burrell's character, Phil, leads a cheerful life as a real estate agent and father of three, dispensing gems of “Phil's-osophy” (“Watch a sunrise at least once a day”) and acting a lot like a teenager.
His signature shtick involves a couple of serious lines delivered straight into the camera, followed by a deadpan zinger and either a smirk or a perfected quizzical expression.
Burrell said the show's creators, Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, wrote the character with him in mind, after working with him on the shows “Out of Practice” and “Back to You,” neither of which survived a first season.
“For better or worse, I'm definitely quite a bit like Phil,” Burrell said in a recent interview by telephone. "Phil has the luxury of not being neurotic. I have more bees buzzing in my head than Phil. But yeah, most of the obliviousness, the clumsiness, and the putting the foot in my mouth, that's me.
“Steve and Chris spent enough time with me off-screen to know what an idiot I am.”
Even with his foot in the door, Burrell said, "I still had to work really hard to sell myself to ABC. They weren't convinced. I had to audition a lot. It went through several screen tests, a whole rigamarole, which I'd been through before. But the stakes were higher this time.
“I didn't know the show would be as good as it is, but I knew it was going to be well written.”
He had a better idea after catching a “Modern Family” episode airing in front of a live audience in New York City before its debut.
"I sneaked in the back and just kind of watched, in the dark, as the crowd was watching. The crowd response was so strong I thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is different.'
“It was such a thrilling moment. It really was.”
In one of the current season's funniest episodes, Phil meets a guy (played by Matthew Broderick) at the gym and innocently invites him over to watch football because the family is gone. He doesn't realize the guy is gay, and the hilarity escalates when a margarita is spilled and the guest takes off his shirt.
“That episode had the markings of some of those classic ”Frasier“ episodes, with misunderstandings like that,” Burrell said. “And I was kind of pinching myself getting a chance to work with Matthew Broderick. He's an icon.”
Family and friends revel in Burrell's stardom.
“It's been such a miracle,” said Burrell's aunt, Connie Hagerman of Grants Pass. Her late brother Gary is Burrell's father. “He's worked so hard. It was so amazing to see his face on TV. It was mesmerizing.”
Hagerman said she can measure Burrell's celebrity by the last three college football bowl games involving the University of Oregon, where Burrell attended college.
At the 2010 Rose Bowl, one person recognized Burrell and asked for an autograph. A year later people pointed fingers and clustered around him during Oregon's national football title appearance in Arizona. And last year at the Rose Bowl, Burrell couldn't go into the stands or among tailgaters because of the risk of being mobbed by fans, Hagerman said.
A decade earlier, Burrell lived in relative obscurity, newly married, catching a minor role or two in the TV show “Law and Order,” a bit part in the movie “Black Hawk Down,” and not far removed from working menial jobs after graduating from Penn State with a master's degree in acting.
“He did those tour buses in New York City, he did all kinds of stupid jobs,” Hagerman said. “At one point, he told me if nothing happened pretty soon, he and Holly were going to Utah and he was going to teach acting.”
Burrell loves his life now. He and his wife have adopted two daughters and live half the year in Utah, where his mother and brother also live.
“It's very rewarding to have a stable job,” he said. “Many people who knew me in Southern Oregon, and my former employers, know why. I was a very bad waiter, and I was not a good firefighter.”
The “Modern Family” gig is the “most creative experience of my life,” and Burrell thinks it can last a while.
“It's such a fun, great job. I think the kid actors on the show are really great, and that's a big part of a show lasting longer. That part makes me really encouraged. I'd like for it to go as long as possible.”
Information from: Daily Courier, http://www.thedailycourier.com