Modern Family exclusive book excerpt: How Ty Burrell became one of TV's most beloved dads
It took months for the actor to land the role of Phil Dunphy, a part that was written for him.
In this exclusive excerpt from Marc Freeman's book Modern Family, The Untold Oral History of One of Television’s Groundbreaking Sitcoms (St. Martin's Press, out today), creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd explain how they plucked Burrell from relative obscurity to make him one of the most beloved dads on TV today. "We wrote Phil for Ty because there’s something about the fact that this guy is unrelentingly nice, never stops trying, and is a big kid," Levitan told Freeman. "All of that applies to Ty."
Ty Burrell’s long, arduous journey from unknown character actor to head of the Dunphy household began as it does for many actors — constantly and chronically unemployed. A play here, a guest spot on Law & Order there, a movie every few years — not nearly enough to pay the bills. He diligently tried to book commercials but never landed a single one. If not for his supportive wife, Holly, unhappily toiling away in a giant bank in New York City, they would never have been able to rub two quarters together to pay the rent in their Astoria, Queens, apartment.
His fortunes finally began to change, however, on a West Coast trip in 2005, at a casting session for Lloyd’s CBS series Out of Practice.
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD (co-creator): I’d seen Ty in a Dennis Quaid movie [In Good Company] about office politics. He had this crazy pageboy haircut, with this deadpan, no-affect delivery. He was a hilarious character with a smallish role, but he jumped off the screen. And then literally four days later, David Rubin, our casting director, brought him in.
TY BURRELL (Phil Dunphy): I stayed in town for pilot season, the classic transient actor coming to L.A., looking for work. I had no experience with sitcoms at all.
LLOYD: Ty was a knock-around New York stage actor. He was 36, offbeat. That scares studios and networks because they get leery of anyone approaching 40 who hasn’t made their mark yet.
Burrell tested for the role of Oliver Barnes, sleazy plastic surgeon son of series lead, Ben Barnes (Henry Winkler). He zipped past producer auditions, graduating to the final round with the studio and network.
BURRELL: Chris likes to tell the story of me bringing my bags to the screen test because I was staying later than I could afford in L.A. He saw me packing my stuff, getting ready to go back to New York, and thought, “That poor sap.”
LLOYD: He’d hired a taxi and then got past the first stage of the process, which was the studio test. Paramount liked him, but it was going to be two hours until we could get over to CBS, where they were going to hear him read. I saw him run out to the taxi and ask the guy, “Could you wait? I might need you to drive me to CBS.” It broke my heart because I thought, “This guy has no money at all. And he’s telling a taxi to wait for two hours.” As much as I loved him, I thought, “CBS is never giving him this part.” And then he got the part, which shows you how much I know.
When Back to You — a new sitcom from Lloyd and Levitan — first got picked up by Fox, he brought Burrell back into the fold, playing the role of field reporter and anchor wannabe Gary Crezyzewski.
BURRELL: I was a cad who was somewhat closer to Phil in a lot of ways. I think Steve, Chris, and I spent enough time around each other offscreen that my dopey but well-intended side may have come out.
When it came time to write the Modern Family pilot, the creators framed Phil specifically with Burrell in mind.
LEVITAN: We wrote Phil for Ty because there’s something about the fact that this guy is unrelentingly nice, never stops trying, and is a big kid. All of that applies to Ty.
LLOYD: We knew him to be an extremely inventive and funny actor who hadn’t been properly exploited yet by Hollywood. We thought, “This guy is waiting to be a star.”
BURRELL: They said, “We have this pilot we wrote and this part with you in mind.” I’ve been in that situation enough to know that doesn’t mean you have the part, that ultimately a network and studio have to sign off. But it still doesn’t save you from emotionally going there.
JEFF GREENBERG (casting director): Steve and Chris thought it was a slam dunk. He’s the guy.
Getting Fox Studios and ABC on board with their vision proved easier said than ultimately done. While Fox Studios signed on, ABC proved to be an impenetrable barrier.
JASON WINER (director / executive producer): So often, a network’s perspective of an actor is colored by its most recent experience with them. Ty had done a pilot for ABC the year before, a multicam that didn’t come out well (Fourplay by Will & Grace creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan).
GREENBERG: It was bad. Everyone was bad in it, and yet there were some good people in the cast.
LEVITAN: Ty played a character who was, by definition, the dull guy. Ty, of course, played it authentically, and consequently the network thought that he was dull.
BURRELL: The whole point of the character was he basically had no emotion. He was super dry and immovable in a lot of ways. Stephen’s [McPherson] interpretation of it was I was an incredibly boring actor.
MCPHERSON (former ABC Entertainment president): That was my only knowledge of the guy. Not the resume you’re looking for. When my head of casting came to me and said, “They really want Ty Burrell,” I said, “You mean the guy in that God-awful pilot we did?” and they were like, “Yeah, that’s the guy.” I thought,“Oh man, how can I do that? It makes no sense.”
LLOYD: They said they didn’t remember him being that funny, to which we said,“Well, the part wasn’t funny. He was the straight man to someone else meant to be funny.”
BURRELL: That previous character didn’t serve me well. I remember seeing Stephen and one of his assistants at a party the night after the Modern Family pilot aired, and this semi-drunk assistant was like, “Who knew you were good?”
LEVITAN: They were very resistant to him. They thought they could find someone flashier and better.
GREENBERG: We offered Phil to Matt LeBlanc. We liked his big-kid quality. He passed.
Many others took a pass on auditioning, including Rob Huebel, Brendan Fehr, Joel McHale, Thomas Lennon, and Stranger Things’ sheriff, David Harbour.
GREENBERG: We brought in actors because we had to, but they were placeholders. It was Ty.
Levitan and Lloyd managed to convince the network to bring Burrell in for a screen test in front of ABC executives.
BURRELL: They call it a screen test, but there’s nothing about it that’s on-screen. You’re actually doing a live performance for people in this little theater, which is absolutely no way to determine who’s going to be the right person for a show that takes place on a television screen.
WINER: It’s not designed for live performances. The room absorbs sound. You don’t hear any echo. You only hear your own voice in your head. It feels like you’re dying because you can’t hear the laughter coming back to you. How anyone ever got cast for a TV show is a miracle.
MCPHERSON: He’s right. It’s not wired for sound. It’s completely awkward. They basically stand up there in front of a big TV screen and do the lines cold with no set or anything.
LEVITAN: Stand-up comedians tended to do better because they’re used to walking in and making people laugh. You’re putting on a show for somebody, and that’s not the role. That’s not the job. It was a silly exercise that’s been largely done away with now.
CLAUDIA LYON (VP of casting at ABC): The funniest thing about the room was when actors were done, they had to walk back up a ramp and out the door. It was the slowest closing door in the world. You’d be sitting in the room, with everybody holding their breath, waiting fifteen seconds for the door to close.
Within this Chorus Line audition setting, Burrell took his first network test. It didn’t go well.
GREENBERG: They said, “No, we’re not fans.” We were dumbfounded because we were his biggest fans on earth.
BURRELL: From my perspective, my audition was too broad. I was nervous. It was a tight, stagy performance, which I take full responsibility for. I wouldn’t have given me that part either.
MCPHERSON: His audition was not good, and he already had a strike unfairly against him coming in, so it would have been a miracle if in that awkward space he had been able to prove anything to us.
LLOYD: The job of being a network president is not an easy one. I think Stephen’s style is to be decisive. “This is how I see it, and I’ve got to go with what I see.” Having said that, I think he was respectful of us. Had other people brought him the same project with an actor he felt wasn’t right for the role, he probably would have said, “Guys, I’ve made up my mind.” He didn’t do that with us. He said, “I respect you guys. I will keep him in the mix, but I’ll ask you to keep looking for other people.”
GREENBERG: When they said no, we had to find other guys again, while we worked with Ty some more.
JEFFREY MORTON (executive producer): I’d done a short-lived series with Rob Corddry, who I thought was great, so I emailed Rob and introduced him to Steve to see if they wanted to pursue that. Rob turned the opportunity down. He told me years later, “Well, I guess that wasn’t my best decision.”
Through persistence and patience, they managed to get a second audition for Burrell.
GREENBERG: We brought Ty back along with other actors, and once again he was rejected. They all were rejected. We had to keep looking. It was so frustrating for us because we knew if he got the job, he’d be one of the home run hitters on the show, which has proved to be true.
BURRELL: The second audition I thought went better, but it obviously wasn’t good enough. I failed to convey the best aspects of the script. They didn’t think I was very good, and my self-loathing agreed with them.
LEVITAN: They were resistant to the point where they were like, “Look, we don’t want him in this role.” We had to at least explore other actors, and we did. We read a lot of really good actors. With all due respect to those actors, we almost made a gigantic mistake in casting some of them. We knew Ty was right.
GREENBERG: We were told by ABC, “We don’t want to see Ty anymore; please don’t bring him back,” which was devastating to us because he was our guy. But we were stuck. We auditioned a lot of guys, a total of 232 in 11 weeks. In the meanwhile, Ty was passing up other opportunities because he wanted the role very much, but he also wanted a job. So he was very gracious to stick with us. We tried to be as gracious as we could to him, because we appreciated him so much for hanging in with us.
WINER: Steve and Chris understood that it didn’t behoove them to twist the network’s arm and say, “This is our guy.” The network had to be excited by the choice, or else it wasn’t going to work long term. So they kept going back to the drawing board. They weren’t despondent. They didn’t get frustrated. They never went, “Screw these guys.” They kept going back saying, “This isn’t how the network sees the character. Maybe the material isn’t giving the right impression.” And they kept revising it.
LEVITAN: We weren’t happy with any of the choices. They didn’t feel right, so we came up with the idea of doing a screen test, which was unusual back then, but now is very common.
LLOYD: We said, “Let’s shoot a scene with him and one with another actor,” who was our other choice. One of them we shot at Steve’s backyard and one at mine.
BURRELL: My agent and wife both advised me that I was being disrespected by ABC. They said, “Forget it. Let it go. You don’t need to be doing this.” My wife, being an amazing person, was trying to protect me from going in and having my feelings crushed for a fifth time.
MORTON: We decided to try out our mockumentary shooting style, so we got a couple of camera guys and a crew of about five. We went to Steve’s house to shoot Ty’s screen test with Sarah Hyland and another kid who was testing for Luke.
BURRELL: That’s really where I owe them, because they went way beyond to film it. They knew that the script needed to be filmed but also that I needed every bit of help that I could get after stinking up a couple of screen tests.
LEVITAN: One scene was Phil and Haley talking together. Another was an interview scene with Phil and then Phil dancing to High School Musical. Then there was the scene where Phil’s shooting Luke in the backyard.
Lloyd and Levitan had Winer work one-on-one with Burrell to give him pointers and a better feel for how to play the role.
BURRELL: Jason did such an amazing job of helping me to relax, which I was not, going into something in which I had already been told I’m terrible at, that there’s no way I’m going to get this part.
WINER: Ty was so brilliant at playing the silences — the pained moments between really distinguished him. I could understand how those moments couldn’t shine through in the live tests with the network, but once we were filming it, the comedy of that awkwardness played like gangbusters.
MORTON: A few days later, we went to Chris’s backyard and shot the same thing.
GREENBERG: We did a screen test with Steven Weber, who we love. We did Wings with him, and he’s amazing. He was a great choice, too.
MORTON: We used a girl who didn’t get the Haley part. Nolan Gould played Luke.
NOLAN GOULD (Luke Dunphy): It was very cool and exciting for me to see what filming a scene might actually be like with people who could potentially be my TV father and TV sister. When I booked Modern Family and met Ty, my new TV dad, it was weird, because in my 10-year-old mind, I had pictured the other guy as my TV dad. I felt for a second like I was cheating with a new TV family.
With the first day on set rapidly approaching, an editor worked through the weekend, converting the backyard footage into a presentation.
MORTON: We were on deadline and had to go to the network to see Stephen and get the last parts cast. Our editor was behind schedule, and so I said I’d run them over to ABC. I drove like crazy from Fox and delivered the tapes. They brought them into a conference room. I had to use the bathroom, and by the time I came back out, I heard people laughing hysterically in the room.
CLAUDIA LYON (VP of casting at ABC): It was like looking at magic happen. It was so funny, the way the words and jokes landed. It felt right immediately.
SAMIE FALVEY (ABC Entertainment head of comedy): If you saw that tape, I defy anybody not to laugh. It was really one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. Jason shot it brilliantly. They were so smart about it.
MCPHERSON: To be honest, it literally changed the process at ABC when I was there. We started putting people on film much more because it proved our process was incredibly flawed. Thank God those guys pushed through.
It took a total of 12 weeks for Burrell to land the role written for him.
WINER: They were able to see exactly why Ty was so funny in the drier style of the show. Laughter in a situation like that is democratic. That’s what won him the role.
MCPHERSON: Once I saw it on film, I knew I was wrong, and I believe that’s when I said to them, “I’m wrong and you’re right.”
GREENBERG: I don’t ever remember a network executive saying aloud in a roomful of people, “I was wrong.” But he did because he saw how brilliant Ty was and what the show was going to be. And he became the biggest cheerleader you could want and dream of for your show.
LLOYD: I will go one further and say after we shot the pilot and he looked at it, he said, “Boy, you guys were right. I’m really glad you talked me into this one.”That was not a politically safe thing for him to say because the show could have crashed and burned. The traditional network executive thing to do would be to wait until it was on TV. If it was a success, then you call the producers and tell them they were right. He didn’t wait, and I credit him for that.
LEVITAN: Most guys want to be proven right. Stephen was above that, and I’ve always appreciated that.
MCPHERSON: It’s really a lesson in you can’t judge an actor by the work he’s done for a project. You have to look at the project and ask, “Was it a good project? Did he have good material?” The previous pilot he did was terrible. It was the exact opposite with Chris and Steve, who are unbelievably talented. They saw his talent, wrote to it, and he was incredible.
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