Father Knows Jack: 'Modern Family's' Ty Burrell
Credit: Photograph by Emily Shur
To hear Burrell tell it, his life has been one long struggle between a burning desire for attention on one hand, and fear of failure on the other. He was born in southern Oregon, the son of a social-worker dad and a teacher mom who for a stretch ran the local country store together. In high school, Burrell was on the football team, but he says he wasn't a jock so much as "a repressed class clown." He'd try his best to crack up his family, either solo or in improv routines with Duncan, who recalls, "Ty liked to play the naive, ill-informed guy – essentially, the idiot. That gave him the most fun."

After high school, Ty suffered an extremely mellow life crisis. "I guess I'd figured maybe I was gonna play in the NFL, but it's ridiculous that that was actually something I thought." Instead he went to the University of Oregon and withdrew into a thick marijuana haze. "I drained the state of weed," he recalls, smiling. "It was like a thatch hut, constantly on fire, and I was living inside. I remember going out to buy weed in my underwear once. Like it was too much work to pull on my pants." He dropped out of school, spent a clearheaded summer as a forest fire–fighter, and wandered.

When his dad died of cancer, Burrell took it as a wake-up call. He kicked weed and enrolled at Southern Oregon University, intent on becoming an actor. He later got his MFA at Penn State. Then he moved to New York, rented an apartment in Queens, and was stunned to find work. "I had low enough self-esteem that I was always shocked when I'd get something. Like, 'Wow, I got another movie, and it's gonna pay me $400!' I didn't turn down anything."

The result is one of those journeyman IMDb pages packed with movies you've never seen outside of a transcontinental flight or in Laundromats (the non–Ang Lee 'Incredible Hulk,' 'National Treasure: Book of Secrets'); one-off bit parts on 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' and 'The West Wing'; and roles in short-lived sitcoms with short-lived-sitcom names, like 'Back to You' and 'Out of Practice.' "I've never had a career strategy," Burrell says. "It was just, 'Keep it going for as long as I can, because I don't have anything to fall back on.'" Was it satisfying? "I was happy to make a living and help pay the bills. My wife was working at Credit Suisse at the time and really floating us." Today he wants to fill the 'Modern Family' breaks with other work. (He'll soon appear in 'Butter,' a feature comedy about competitive butter carving.) "I've spent the vast majority of my career unemployed. So now it's the whole make-hay-while-the-sun-shines thing."

In 2008, Burrell got a call from the screenwriting-producing team of Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, both of whom he'd worked with before. They were developing a sitcom about a large, offbeat American clan, and they'd written a role with Burrell in mind. He wouldn't even need to audition: Lloyd remembered Burrell from the CBS lot where 'Out of Practice' taped, how cast and crew would gather after shooting was done for inebriated powwows called mingles. "They devolved into everyone rolling on the floor at 1 am while Ty held court," Lloyd says. "It's a small subset of people who are as funny and as fun to be around as Ty. The big dimension he adds is that he's not just funny; he also plays heart moments so well. We did an episode of 'Modern Family' early on where we cut to a quick scene of Ty in a bathrobe, waving goodbye to his kids on the first day of school. He doesn't want to let them know he's upset to see them go, but we get it. It's three seconds, but it's heartbreaking."