Father Knows Jack: 'Modern Family's' Ty Burrell
Credit: Photograph by Emily Shur

There's something inspiring about the way Ty Burrell cleans a toilet. The actor is at his house in the hills of Salt Lake City, boots firmly planted in the guesthouse bathroom, eyeing a gnarly ring of grime encircling the bowl. "Yeah," he says, holding a can of heavy-duty cleanser and a Brillo pad, "this is not acceptable." There's a toilet brush nearby, but brushes are for easier jobs – and prissier dudes. Burrell rolls his sleeves up and plunges a hand in deep. "When I saw how dirty this was," he says, grinning, "I vividly heard my wife's voice yelling at me to clean it."

If this were a scene on 'Modern Family,' the sitcom in which Burrell costars as the endearingly inept, wannabe "down" father-of-three Phil Dunphy, the toilet would win. Phil would accidentally flush his wedding ring, and by act two he'd be neck-deep in a septic tank, bobbing for it. The show has enjoyed the kind of success that tends to fuse actors and their roles in the public imagination. But Ty Burrell is no Phil Dunphy. Porcelain sparkling, he runs his hand under some hot water, rolls his sleeves back down, and flicks off the light. Pro.

Burrell, 43, lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, an actress-turned-banker-turned-pastry chef, and their adopted year-old daughter, Frankie. "I can't have kids," Burrell says. "I have apathetic sperm." The Burrells split their time between Los Angeles, where 'Modern Family' tapes, and Salt Lake, partly because Ty's wife, Holly, has family here, and partly because they don't want Frankie to grow up thinking Hollywood is a normal place.

Ty's younger brother, Duncan (he has an older brother and sister, too), lives here as well. Last year, partnering with some friends and family, the two bought a beloved SLC watering hole called Bar-X, which they renovated into an haute dive with a cocktail menu – hand-mashed ginger ale, a topiary of garnishes – designed to introduce Salt Lake City to artisanal boozing.

The grand opening is tonight, and Burrell's 'Modern Family' wife, actress Julie Bowen, is flying in and staying in his guesthouse. He promised to pick her up at the airport. After lunch, Burrell drives me to his house – a sunny one-story with minimalist wood furniture and stuffed bookshelves – so he can straighten up for Bowen and check on his basement freezer. He and a friend have gone in on a cow, and he's waiting for his portion to be delivered. The cow hasn't shown yet. "This is like Christmas morning for me," he says.

Burrell stands in his kitchen, drinking coffee. He's wearing scuffed Red Wing boots, Levi's, and a slim gray blazer over a plaid shirt, some mildly roguish stubble sprouting from his chin. He gets a text. "Now Julie's saying she'll take a cab from the airport," he says, reading it. "We're in a politeness war, seeing who can out-nice the other one."

But you've got to start scrubbing toilets pretty early in the morning to out-nice Ty Burrell. He grabs the keys to his Subaru Forester. "OK. Airport," he says. "But first let me take you back to your car. It's totally on the way."