When the suits at Fox offered Ty Burrell a featured role in the new sitcom "Back to You," the Southern Oregon native had his usual reaction:
"Really? Me? Are you sure?"
Burrell, at 40 the owner of an impressive resume, says he still can't believe he can make a living acting.
"I keep thinking that at some point soon they'll realize that they got the names mixed up and they meant to hire a guy named Todd Burtell," he says. "Luckily for me I have no other skill set to tempt me away from acting."
"Back to You" airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox Channel 26. It was created by Steven Levitan ("Just Shoot Me") and Christopher Lloyd ("Frasier"). It debuted last month starring Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier") and Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond") as co-anchors on the evening news show at a fictional Pittsburgh, Pa., television station.
Burrell plays field reporter and anchor wannabe Gary Crezyzewski, who's always being sent to cover stories like the opening of the county fair. One of the standing jokes is that Grammer's character, Chuck Darling, can never nail the pronunciation of Gary's last name, which is Kre-shoov-ski.
Burrell was born in Grants Pass, studied theater at Southern Oregon University and now lives in New York City when he isn't shooting the show. For a guy who sounds like he can't believe his own press clippings, he's had a notable career.
He starred in Steven Shainberg's "Fur," a movie about photographer Diane Arbus, in which he played Nicole Kidman's husband. He was in the films "Friends with Money," "Down in the Valley," "Black Hawk Down" and the 2004 re-make of "Dawn of the Dead," among others.
On stage, he acted opposite Edward Norton in "Burn This." He played in the Public Theater production of Richard III," and caught a role in the world premiere of "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" at the Royal Court Theater in London.
On TV he starred with Stockard Channing and Henry Winkler in the short-lived "Out of Practice."
"When he went to SOU he did lots of Shakespeare," says his mother, Sheri Burrell, of Ashland. "He was always cast as a leading man until now. I'm really proud of him for hanging in there."
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"Back to You" is a three-camera sitcom shot with a live audience. The use of multiple cameras is the only way a live show can be shot in a single performance from several perspectives.
Early reviews have been good to mixed. The Los Angeles Daily News singled out Burrell, opining that his performance in an episode titled "Fish Story" was "a concise masterpiece of both verbal and physical humor." In that show, Gary gets zapped by a cop demonstrating the latest in super-high-power tasers. He drops as if poleaxed and finishes his on-air story speaking twitchy gibberish.
"With all the big names associated with this show, how ironic would it be if a supporting player stole the show?" the Daily News said.
"Back to You" features humorously flawed characters and sharp writing. Chuck and Kelly trade quips with 26-year-old, fat-guy boss Ryan Church (Josh Gad), sexy weather girl Montana Diaz Herrera (Ayda Field), clueless, politically incorrect sports guy Marsh McGinley (Fred Willard) and hapless, frustrated Gary (Burrell).
Kelsey Grammer's Chuck is a pompous anchorman whose ambition took him to ever bigger markets until a spectacular melt-down — caught live and posted on the Internet — sent him packing back to Pittsburgh. He is an immature (his very name suggests an unwillingness to grow up), womanizing windbag who lives in a hotel.
Patricia Heaton co-stars as uptight co-anchor Kelly Carr, who became sole anchor when Chuck left and is not happy about his return. Her unease is not just professional. She and Chuck had a drunken tryst (mutually unsatisfying, we gather from the barbs they fling at each other) before his departure, leading to the birth of her daughter, Gracie (Laura Marano), now 10. The self-centered Chuck must now come to terms with that.
Burrell says Grammer is an incredible actor from whom he learns every day. He says Heaton is expert at carrying a narrative while being funny. He says Willard as Marsh is so unique he can't be copied.
"He's like slime in this way that is purely him," he says.
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Burrell is talking into his cell phone from Century City, where he walks 20 minutes from his apartment to the Fox sound stage.
"People think my car's broken," he says.
His wife, Holly, is studying to be a pastry chef in New York City. The couple get together every third week.
"It hasn't been the easiest period," Burrell says.
Burrell grew up in Ashland and in the Applegate Valley, where his dad ran the Applegate store. He says there was no drama in high school when he was a student. He went to the University of Oregon, where he was an undisciplined student, dropped out, did "a whole lot of nothing" and went back to school at SOU, where he first tried acting at 22. He says SOU was crucial in his development as an actor.
"There was a strong feeling of independence within a structure," he says.
Burrell and fellow actor Keith Hitchcock created an hour-long improv piece called "Cal and Eddie" in which they had the audience flip a coin onto a map of the United States, then did a "road trip" to the spot.
"We had a blast," he says, "but I suspect, if I were to look at a videotape of that evening, that I wasn't as funny as I thought I was."
He played Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at SOU in a production directed by SOU's Dale Luciano. He remembers trying not to crack up in the middle of scenes.
"It was a fairly pure experience," he says. "Actually, in retrospect, most of my non-professional experiences seem pure."
Luciano, who has stayed in touch with Burrell, remembers him as a smart, instinctive student with all the right moves.
"He just didn't do anything that was false," Luciano says. "Some people just have a good instinct for what's truthful and right for the character."
Luciano later saw Burrell on Broadway in "Burn This" in a turn that got raves in the New York Times.
"He visits when he's here," Luciano says. "He's talked to some classes."
After SOU Burrell earned a master's degree at Penn State University. He says formal training was important for him, but quickly admits that it hasn't been for some of the best actors of his generation.
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"Back to You" has a read-through on Wednesday, half-day rehearsals Thursday, Friday and Monday and a final rehearsal on Tuesdays, followed by four hours of taping with an audience. Burrell says that's a pretty light schedule.
"I really should do some landscaping around the soundstage to earn my paycheck," he says.
He managed to get time away from the show recently for shooting on Louis Leterrier's upcoming movie "The Incredible Hulk," with Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and Tim Roth. Burrell plays Doc Sampson. The picture is due for release in June.
He says his favorite TV comedies are still live audience shows such as "Cheers" and "Seinfeld." He feels such shows generate a warmth not found on single-camera shows such as "Malcolm in the Middle" or "Arrested Development."
Burrell sees Gary as a guy who feels he's the smartest guy in the room, and who is always getting sabotaged by his need to be noticed.
"He never seems to respond to situations with grace, and I truly relate to that," he says.
The character doesn't have a lot of back story, and Burrell says people don't need one to enjoy his successes and failures, mostly the latter.
Burrell says TV dramas tend to be well-oiled machines, while film is looser and a bigger gamble.
"It's a pretty exciting thing to walk on to a film in a supporting part or in a lead because nobody really knows anything," he says. "You can kind of do your thing on a lot of movies because they're often a big, beautiful mess. On a TV show the style and format is etched in stone and you're just trying to not screw it up."
He says TV comedy is more akin to live theater than to TV drama or film. That's where that live audience comes in.
"The audience is such a cool, empirical, indicator of what you're doing and whether it's going well," he says. "The great thing is that on TV, you can do it again if you mess it up."