When Ty Burrell was 7 years old in his hometown of Appleton, Ore., he won a chocolate cake in a kid's competition. "[It was] the only thing I ever won."
Sunday, he's up for another prize: one of 14 Emmy awards for which ABC's hot ensemble comedy "Modern Family" has been nominated in its first season. But Burrell is leery of his chances, given memories of what happened to the cake.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ty Burrell: An article about "Modern Family" actor Ty Burrell last Sunday identified his hometown as Appleton, Ore. The town is Applegate. —
"My parents allowed me the delusion I could eat it all myself. But I only got the first slice. Then the family dug in."
Not that he's bitter, the cake memory now a sweet one in retrospect for Burrell — after all, everybody ended up with a taste. "It's a beautiful lesson ... the team comes first, that's how I see it."
Thus it is with Ty Burrell — a self-pessimistic humanist, with a deadpan delivery and award-worthy acting chops to boot.
At the Nokia Theatre, Burrell faces competition from his current professional family. He is in the same supporting-actor-in-a-comedy category as Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who have garnered attention for their groundbreaking, engaging portrayal of gay partners taking on parenting.
But Burrell's nomination is perhaps the more impressive one given that he faced the thankless task of playing that most familiar of sitcom figures: the traditional TV dad.
As TV dads go, Burrell's Phil Dunphy character is uniquely uncool-yet-cool. Phil is written as agreeably clueless, but Burrell shades him with awareness around the edges. Most important, Burrell conveys the character's vulnerabilities, but never comes off as a victim.
"We didn't want a boorish dad, but we also didn't want a punching bag," said Christopher Lloyd, the show's co-creator, writer and executive producer. "We wanted someone likable ... not mean or cynical. In part, it would explain why the wife would be attracted to him — the good-heartedness of the person, a good father."
"Ty is so great at projecting Phil's human being-ness," said Julie Bowen, who, playing Phil's wife Claire, is also up for an Emmy. "Even every rehearsal scene I do [with him] peels back a bit more of Phil and grows my response as Claire."
"Modern Family's" producers wrote the role of Phil with Burrell in mind and kept him coming back through the network-vetted audition process. Until then, Burrell, who turned 43 a week ago, had a tough time career-wise. His trajectory was a slightly upward variation of the quintessential "unknown actor in desperate search of a break" tale.
A small-town upbringing in southern Oregon, three universities, 81/2 years of collegiate acting training and nearly a decade of scuffling in New York taught Burrell two things: (1) acting was the only thing he wanted to do and (2) acting was probably the only thing he could do.
After such along-the-way jobs as Oregon forest firefighter, Manhattan city street tour guide, construction worker and waiter, "I learned I have no skills besides acting," Burrell said with equal parts self-knowledge and regret.
"Briefly, I was a telemarketer, selling medical books by phone. I am a needy people-pleaser to begin with and I wasn't good at seeing people as prey. Basically, after the pitch, all I wanted was the client to gratify my self-esteem, tell me I'd done a good job … though, obviously, I hadn't, since I didn't sell them anything. Managers yelled at me a lot."
His stage talent grew, but there was never the one "aha!" break-out role. Not a singer or dancer, he grew to prefer doing comedy to drama and new plays to old ones.
Contemporary playwright Will Eno, with whom Burrell worked last year in a workshop production of a new play, " Middletown," rhapsodized about Burrell's acting and the man himself.
"He's such a gentleman, you don't think he'll be so funny. Then he's so funny, you don't think he's going to be emotionally grounded. And then he is, and you don't think he'll be good at Wiffle ball. And he is."
Beyond theater, Burrell spent the 2000s kicking tires in Hollywood, getting small roles in TV shows and character parts in films, among them "Black Hawk Down," "National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets" and "The Incredible Hulk." Not a bad little run, but Burrell felt he wasn't an effective job applicant.
"I didn't understand that in movie meetings they don't use conditional language, words like 'if' or 'maybe.' It was so direct, so emphatic.... At the meeting, the guy would be 'we like you' and 'you're what this character needs.' I would leave thinking, 'I'm going to star in a movie! This is E.Z!'"
Burrell's expression abruptly shifted to resignation. "And then nothing would happen, because they always had someone else in mind or the movie wasn't a go in the first place. I'd be home thinking 'somehow, I ruined it again.'"