Modern Family co-creator breaks down that 'bittersweet' death of a Dunphy
Father-son bonding time turned out to be far more impactful than expected on Modern Family.
One season after the veteran ABC family comedy bid farewell to Pritchett matriarch DeDe (Shelley Long), there was more Good Grief to share. At the end of Wednesday's episode, viewers learned that Frank Dunphy — Phil's goofy, gregarious dad played by Fred Willard, who appeared in 14 episodes over the show's 11 seasons — would be delivering bon mots from heaven from now on. "Legacy" began with Phil (Ty Burrell) traveling to Florida to check on his dad, Frank (Fred Willard), after hearing reports that his father had been wandering around the grocery store that he used to run. Turns out, ol' Funpa was fine — no dementia there — until he wasn't. The pair of goofs spent the day together, trying to change a flat tire with Frank's ill-fated (and much too powerful) Presto Jack, and sharing a meaningful, relationship-galvanizing moment while Phil cut his dad's hair. When Phil asked his dad if he ever wished he had another child so he could have assumed the reins of the family business, Frank responded, "Well, you did take over the family business, didn't you? Keeping life light, making it fun for everybody." Phil responded, "I learned from the best," prompting father to squeeze the arm of son.
"We didn't do much that day but… it might have been one of the best days I ever had with my dad," Phil told the camera, as he started to tear up. "I just didn't know it would be the last."
Viewers then were transported to the family's memorial service, where Phil delivered a heartfelt eulogy: "My dad was okay, and my takeaway from our day was, don't miss the chance to let the people you appreciate know that," he said. Back to camera, he noted, "The hard part has been figuring out a way to pay tribute to my dad, but something came to me in the garage today. I think he would have liked it." In the episode's final moments, Phil landed his boat on that special beach where a pair of giant bird prints captivated the community in the summer of '77. He donned flippers and left a few more marks, as his dad had once done, a son truly following in his father's footsteps. Here, Modern Family co-creator Christopher Lloyd takes you inside that surprise "bittersweet" goodbye.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The grim reaper has visited the show again. Why did you decide to have Phil's dad die — and how tough was that decision?
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: It was a tough decision because you don't ever want to let go of a character that you love. And I've always loved that character. However, 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. But he's a little bit of this manchild. It was a chance to lend some dimension to that. That isn't just Phil being goofy, that's actually a choice. He learned this from his dad, that somebody can be the one who keeps life light, and that's important not just in a family but maybe in a community. That's what he grew up seeing his dad do. So we see that it's a choice on Phil's part that he sees the world around him needing sparkly lights and he's going to be those sparkly lights. And it was a bittersweet way of seeing where he learned that and that it's sort of an ethic on his part and not just a goofy characteristic.
Fred brought such an optimism, can-do spirit, quirkiness and daffiness to this role. There was no doubt that this apple fell close to the tree. What did you appreciate most about Fred's comedic contributions to the show and that character?
He's really a consummate comedic actor, and we've been a fan of his for decades. I've worked with him on shows previous to this one. No one makes Ty laugh funnier than Fred Willard, really. That's always a delight to see someone like Ty — who I have maximum respect for — really bowing down in front of someone else. So we always loved having him on the show. He just has a light touch with comedy, but there's nothing easy about it for him. Fred rehearses and practices in his trailer endlessly. So he makes it look easy by working very, very hard. And the character itself, you see a lot of doddering older people on television — which, if I were that age, I probably would object to — he had a little bit more to him than that.
He found a way to really find fun in the mundane. And we've seen that in the character from the beginning. There has always been a very sweet relationship between the two of them where Frank was always a little resistant to talk about emotional things, but when pressed, could go there. We didn't see him more than once or twice a year, but he did help us make sense of Phil. So while it had a sad tinge to it, it was a chance to give that character a farewell while getting a little insight into who Phil is.
When Frank reassures him that he did follow in his footsteps, that seems to be the ultimate validation for Phil, and he got everything he needed to hear before his dad passed. So much was communicated in that one brief conversation.
There's probably nothing a father might like to [see] more than that this son has followed in his footsteps. Phil says to him, "I hope you weren't disappointed that I didn't go into the family business," and Frank says, "But you did, you learned from me and you maybe even did me one better." And so it was really kind of a sweet good-bye moment between them that got to the very core of who they both are. So, yes. bittersweet because you find out it was one of the last conversations they had, but it also might've been the truest moment that those two characters ever had together.
The death comes unexpected, especially the way the episode was unfolding, and then you finally realize that Phil was talking about the last day with his father — and then there's the off-beat tribute with the footprints. Were there other ways that the writers discussed handling his death? And how did you ultimately land on this way?
We didn't really discuss other ways. We thought: what if we build backwards from an interview where Phil says, "I spent a day with my dad. We didn't do much, but in many ways it was the best day I ever had with them. I just never knew it would be the last"? I heard about this true story [about] this small town where these mysterious bird footprints appeared on the shore of a lake. And it was a big thing that the townspeople would come out and look at them and it was a mystery, but it really livened up the town for a while and that these things would disappear. And then to find out that Frank had been responsible for that as a symbol of his desire to give the town something to get excited about. And that Phil's tribute to his dad would be to leave those footprints one last time. Once that idea got on the table, we thought, "Okay, well, that at least hopefully takes the sting out of losing the character because it's very lovely, but also off a very offbeat tribute that he pays to his dad."
Is there a chance that we might see Frank in flashbacks in the final run of episodes?
It's possible. Through the season and even as we move forward, we have been adding flashbacks to the episodes, just as a little nostalgic layer that we've put on the season. As we see moments where characters are reflecting on things that happened in the past, we might pop to a scene where the kids are really small. But as the audience is feeling this growing bittersweetness about the impending end of the show, it's nice to go back and see where we met all these characters…. We haven't shot everything yet and we're still figuring some things out. There are no plans [to film new scenes with him]. If I were guessing, that was his swan song.
How did Fred and Ty react when you told them the plan for this episode?
Ty really liked it. He said, "This relationship in this episode made me think of my own dad." Ty's dad, who has passed away some years ago, was a very playful guy and really kept things light in their household, and I think Ty enjoyed kind of accessing that in the scenes with Fred. But it was almost a preview of our big goodbye [laughs], which will be happening shortly, to play a more emotional goodbye to someone. It felt like the first of a few that we'll be going through.
Look, Fred is a veteran and he knows the series is ending. It wasn't like, "Oh, this character would have been seen in a bunch more episodes." I think he thought, "Okay, that will be a nice and different episode for me to play with Ty." And he welcomed it, as far as I could tell. I mean, he's just a very dear man who is always game for anything. And it was really great to have him amongst us one last time.
Did you joke about having him meet his maker via the Presto Jack? Because that was a pretty amazing invention — and it would have been a way to go.
I think fans might have had a thing or two to say if we'd had Phil and Frank crushed to death on the side of a road. [Laughs] But I hope people don't think we faked that stunt. That car actually flipped.
What did you hear from people over the years about how uncanny and credible this casting was? It just made so much goofy, humane sense.
That was probably a reaction we [got when we] first had him in season 1 where people go, "Oh my God, how perfect! I mean, they are both great. They look like one another." They have the same kind of ebullience and Phil is always looking for the laugh, the smile, the way to keep things amusing. And that seems exactly what Fred Willard's rule of life is. So they just clicked right away.
Given DeDe's death last season, should all Dunphy-Pritchett-Tucker relatives be quaking in their boots as we hit the final stretch of episodes or even the finale itself?
No one is safe! [Laughs] I actually must say the idea of, "We killed another one off" — no one is looking to grab ratings or anything. In fact, we obviously didn't even promote it that way. It was meant to be a surprise and I credit the network for not having billed it that way. It's just a thing that happens in life. We all know parents get older, and that is a thing that people face. We didn't want to do the more conventional, "Oh, he dies at the beginning or halfway through and they help their kids deal with that." This was a different way of doing it; play it more like a surprise, but have it actually be a discovery for Phil that he finds out his dad was always really proud of him, because he more or less did take over the family business of keeping life light for everybody else.
We are only a handful of episodes from the finale in April, and you're getting ready to film it. What resonates with you as you think about that looming finale episode? My byword on that is that endings need to be beginnings. We're trying to find a way to leave the characters in places that the audience will enjoy seeing them so that our characters can live on in the minds of our audience on new journeys. And the audience can create those journeys for them. But we have to find the right paths to put everybody on to allow for that to happen.
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