'Family' Ty

Southern Oregon native Ty Burrell relishes his Emmy-nominated role in hit ABC comedy 'Modern Family'

For Ty Burrell, playing goofy, oblivious, tries-too-hard dad Phil Dunphy on "Modern Family" is a breeze.

"I get so much pleasure out of playing Phil," said the Rogue Valley native who studied theater at Southern Oregon University in an interview from Shreveport, La., where he was making the movie "Butter."

"At first I thought it was because I was like Phil. I am an idiot. I'm certainly oblivious in some ways. In fact, the more I play him, the more I realize it's because in the most fundamental way I'm not like Phil," says Burrell, who this month received an Emmy nomination for the role.

"I am fundamentally a kind of neurotic person," he says. "It's like going on vacation to play Phil. His brain is like a meadow.

"His brain is like those sound machines you get for the bedside table. It's like the sound of waves crashing, like a babbling brook and wind in the trees. Phil is just so wonderfully empty-minded, empty-brained and when I'm done working I always feel like I've been at the spa."

A fantastic Phil line from a recent episode of illuminates his point: "Every Realtor is a ninja in a blazer. The average burglar breaks in and leaves clues everywhere, but not me. I'm completely clueless."

"Modern Family" can be seen at 9 p.m., Wednesdays on ABC.

There's been a dearth of quality comedies in recent years while strong dramas have prevailed. Burrell had his own brushes with failed sitcoms in the recent past, including CBS's "Out of Practice" and Fox's "Back to You."

Burrell acknowledged that he expected "Back to You" would run for a while because of the big names on-screen and behind the-scenes — stars Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton; and executive producers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, the forces behind "Modern Family."

Burrell said with hindsight that most people who worked on "Back to You" think it would have survived on CBS, a network more hospitable to live-action comedy series.

"I went into 'Modern Family' with the most preparation for failure of anything I've done," he said. "From understanding the realities of the business, the odds against us were so steep. ... You never know about anything.

"I shouldn't have been so cynical about 'Back to You' because you just don't know. 'Modern Family' has been the largest 'you never know' in my life."

Burrell was born in Grants Pass grew up in Ashland and in the Applegate Valley, where his dad ran the Applegate store. He said in a 2007 interview with the Mail Tribune that 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 said in the 2007 interview.

Burrell has his own theory on the recent comedy drought on television.

"Rightly or wrongly, I strongly believe there are no new stories," he said. "I think it's all the same song, different singer and how well they're told.

"The other thing is during that stretch a lot of the comedy that was trying to make it and not making it was incredibly ironic and ultra-clever and ultimately a little bit detached. I think that maybe part of the resurgence is that it has a little heart injected back into it. I really do think good writing prevails and one of the things with the drought that we benefited from is a lot of good writers looking for work. Our ('Modern Family') writing staff is just completely the cream of the crop in comedy right now."

In the upcoming movie "Butter," Burrell plays a world-champion butter sculptor who has won the national title 15 years in a row and steps aside at the behest of the judging committee. His wife (Jennifer Garner) can't accept that and decides to compete herself.

"It's a little bit of a political satire and I'm sort of a Bill Clinton figure," Burrell said. "(Garner's character) has aspirations I'll run for governor and all of these things and so she decides she's going to win it so she steps in to take my place, because I wimped out, in her mind, and then the film becomes about her and this young girl and their battle."

Sounds like a perfect hiatus movie for the man who plays Phil Dunphy.


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