Ty Burrell on playing Modern Family's Phil Dunphy

The greatest TV father since Homer Simpson

Five years ago, Ty Burrell was ready to quit acting. He was 41 years old and had a solid couple of decades in the business behind him: a handful of Hollywood movies (Black Hawk Down, Dawn of the Dead, The Incredible Hulk), countless summers of Shakespeare including a Macbeth on Broadway, enough television roles to fill an A4 page. Not bad, better than most, but no killer role to lift him from slogging around the audition circuit to walking the red carpet.

A couple of potential big breaks – a lead in the CBS plastic surgery sitcom, Out of Practice, and a starring role opposite Kelsey Grammer in his first post-Frasier series, Back to You – had both been axed in a matter of months. His wife, Holly, whom he met at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company in 1999, had swapped acting for being a pastry chef years ago. They were thinking about having children. It was time for a change.

"We were having serious discussions about me getting out of the business. If you get into something you really feel good about, it's the best job on earth," says Burrell in a treacly, jetlagged drawl. "But the day-to-day thing of auditioning and pilot season – that part can be really challenging. Doing 150 performances of a play you're kinda embarrassed by. It's not as romantic as it sometimes gets made out to be." Acting had become a drag. "Yes it had. It felt like, especially at the age of 40, 41 – OK, this is maybe a good chapter break if I were going to do something else." And what might that have been? "Well. That's partly why I didn't leave. I'm not burdened with another skillset. I think I probably would have taught theatre. That would have been my only option."

It never came to that. In 2009, Burrell was cast in a new family sitcom from Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, the team behind Frasier. He had already worked with them on the aforementioned Back to You, playing an inept reporter who spent his life covering highway spills and blizzards when he really wanted to be the anchorman. When Lloyd and Levitan needed a well-meaning but calamity-prone father figure, they knew who to call.

The first episode of Modern Family was broadcast on ABC on 23 September, 2009. A mockumentary which follows one family split over three quite different households, it is the most successful comedy to come out of America since Friends. Now in its fifth season, it pulls in 12 million viewers an episode. During the 2012 election campaign, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney claimed the show as a favourite, which says something about its powerful universal appeal. The critics adore it, too, praising its winning blend of hearts and smarts. It has won 18 Emmys, including the award for Outstanding Comedy Series four years in a row, four Screen Actors Guild awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series and a Golden Globe, among others.

Universal appeal: Ty Burrell in series four of 'Modern Family' (Fox) Universal appeal: Ty Burrell in series four of 'Modern Family' (Fox)
In 2011, Burrell won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor and has been nominated every year since. Last month, he won a Screen Actors Guild Award. His acceptance speech consisted of five rules for would-be actors including: "Number three: have no skillset other than being a needy extrovert" and "Number four: use that lack of skill to fail over and over and over again until you stumble into a job written by Chris Lloyd, Steve Levitan and our entire writing staff. Also at that job, make sure your co-workers are the cast of Modern Family."

These days he and his on-screen relatives are thought to command around $175,000 (£106,000) each per episode, a salary that is likely to rise to $350,000 (£212,600) per episode by the time they reach the end of their current eight-series contract. And after that? "I think we all hope for more," he says. "I just can't imagine getting burnt out on that show." Twelve, 15 series? "I hope so. I would love it!"

As Phil Dunphy, the head of an all-American nuclear family, Burrell is the show's big, dumb, comic heart. His father-in-law, Jay (played by Ed O'Neill), and Jay's second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) are noisier, his brother-in-law Mitchell and partner Cameron, more hysterical, but Big Phil is the character who pops up most frequently on T-shirts – WWPDD, or What Would Phil Dunphy Do? is a popular design – and has Tumblrs dedicated to his brand of paternal philosophy, or "Phil's Osophy". "Watch a sunrise at least once a day," he deadpans. "When life gives you lemonade, make lemons. Life will be all like whaaaaat?" Were you to look inside Phil's brain, Burrell likes to say, it would resemble a Terrence Malick tracking shot. "Just grain waving back and forth, a slight breeze, some footsteps off in the distance, and that's it." Phil calls his style of down-with-the-kids parenting "peerenting"; his wife Claire calls him "the kid she's married to". He has a debilitating phobia of clowns, is intensely competitive with his own sons, was once a male cheerleader and says things like "WTF – why the face?". A still from Mr Peabody & Sherman, starring Ty Burrell as the talking dog A still from 'Mr Peabody & Sherman', starring Ty Burrell as the talking dog

For all of these reasons he is clearly the best character. Is there much competition over who gets the best lines? "There really isn't. We're lucky to be in a situation where everyone is written to very evenly. We're spoilt – myself, Eric [Stonestreet, who plays Cam] and Sofia – we get material that's a little bit broader or more outlandish," he grins. "Sometimes we may get to have some more fun than the others."

They film in LA, three sitting rooms lined up in a row on an echoing sound stage. "So I get to watch the other two families like any other fan," he says. "Five seasons in I'm still reading scripts where I think, 'That might be our best script yet', which is almost unheard of. When it started, writers' comedy was sort of dead in the US."

Burrell says: 'I'm not burdened with another skillset. My only option would have been to teach theatre' (Benjamin McMahon) Burrell says: 'I'm not burdened with another skillset. My only option would have been to teach theatre' (Benjamin McMahon)
Unlike those churlish rock stars who refuse to play their number-one single at gigs, Burrell talks about Modern Family – which he calls, rather coyly, "Our Show" – at every opportunity. And he loves Phil like an older brother. "I do. I really do. He's just such a well-intended person and guileless. I really aspire to that. I like him so much. [He's] such a wonderful person to roll out of bed and play every day. It feels good going to work. It can be really fun playing a villain, because you get to say things you never get to say in reality. But it's harder. I don't know what it would be like to play [one] every day on a series."

In fact, Burrell has played his fair share of villains – from a smug zombie hunter in Dawn of the Dead, to an evil corporal in Evolution. You can see what casting directors were thinking. He is darkly handsome with Dracula eyebrows and a low rumble of a voice. Today he is wearing owlish tortoiseshell glasses and a cosy, chunky cardigan, but stick him in a slick suit and shiny shoes and he could easily pass for a cad. "Basically, my type was what they would call in American sports a 'tweener'. I'm not quite leading man material but I was never super character-y either. I was just sort of floating between these worlds, hoping for a job. In film, that leaves you as the villain, casts you as the asshole, for want of a better term. I've played a LOT of bad guys. Smarmy types."

What he really wanted to do was comedy. "Comedy is more egalitarian. If you suit the material, it really isn't as much about the look. For example, on our show, Eric Stonestreet was not meant to play Cam. He didn't look the part, and he's straight. Also they had none of that about his size and he's a big guy. But that's a really cool thing about comedy – if you come in and you kill it, which he did, then they just change it. You can make that comedy come alive."

Growing up in Applegate, Oregon, Burrell thought he would be a footballer one day. "Which is absurd, because I was so not qualified." When he was 20, he got a summer job as a barman at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the largest rep theatre company in America which happened to be down the road from him. After shifts he would sneak into the back row and watch whatever was on. One afternoon he saw Death of a Salesman and that was that. It was a late start, but a committed one. He studied theatre arts at the University of Oregon and then for a Masters at Penn State. "I was so scared of the real world of auditioning, I ended up studying theatre for, like, seven years. If I could have got a PhD in 'Acting Research', I would have." As a graduate he lived out of his van for a while before getting his first job as a spear carrier in Pericles at Utah Shakespeare Festival. "Those are some of my best memories. Those were really fun summers. Everybody's young and single and you get to watch these actors you really admire, day in, day out. I learnt a lot."

 Eventually it began to pall. "Honestly, I got a little burnt out on Shakespeare. It sounds crazy to say that about Shakespeare, but that is actually true. The language was always satisfying but trying to make the plot seem plausible... I was always thinking, 'I don't know if I can make this wedding at the end of this scene look like it really came from anything real'. Occasionally you'd do a production that you felt great about. But to make a living in regional theatre maybe you're in one production that you feel good about and then one that you don't." Playing Macduff on Broadway in 2000 and starring opposite Stephen Dillane in Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? at the Royal Court in 2005 were highlights. Nevertheless, if he did ever become a drama teacher, he would tell his students in their first class that the real job of an actor is auditioning, not acting. "That's really the day-to-day life. You get the call at 2pm and they want you there by 4.30pm..."

These days, auditions are less of an ordeal, part of the "embarrassment of riches" Modern Family has brought with it. In between filming 24 episodes a season, he has found time for two new movies. In Muppets Most Wanted, he plays a non-puppet Inspector Jean-Pierre Napoleon, "an amalgam of every French inspector you've ever seen in your life". This month, he stars in Mr Peabody and Sherman, a typically smart new cartoon from Dreamworks. He voices the world's cleverest dog who goes time travelling with his 'pet' son. Another father figure, in other words. "Yeah, I know. Right."

Burrell's own father died of cancer when he was a student. When he got the part on Modern Family, he had no children, but in 2010, he and his wife adopted a baby girl, Frances (he has, he says, "apathetic sperm"). They adopted another daughter in 2012. So far, he says, his experience of fatherhood is closer to that of Mitchell and Cam and their adopted daughter, Lily, than it is to Phil's. "Those storylines are actually what we're dealing with. From the first season of them bumping their heads and locking them in the car, up to now where they're curious and asking about death. I'm much more keyed into those things, and I'm laughing so hard at them."

He currently splits his time between LA and Utah, his wife's home state. A couple of years ago he opened a speakeasy, Bar-X, serving Bourbon Sours and Old Fashioneds with his brother in Salt Lake City. His family, many of whom have migrated to the area, are regulars. "Nothing," he says with a slow, satisfied smile, "brings family to town like a bar." That's an original piece of Ty's Osophy, right there.

'Mr Peabody and Sherman' is released on Friday; 'Modern Family Season 4' is on DVD now

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