He supplemented his sporadic income with a series of odd jobs — busing tables and answering phones for a telethon selling a Motown anthology.
In 2005, a home video Day shot with his friends Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton for less than $50 evolved into the pilot for "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which was picked up by FX and has gone into syndication on Comedy Central. One of the show's writers and executive producers, Day, who plays a character named Charlie, has matured as a performer during its making, according to Danny DeVito, who joined the series in its second season.
"You can feel people settling into their skin," said DeVito, who plays Charlie's roommate and suspected biological father. "They were all very green, including Charlie. He's much more comfortable on the stage now."
The show also brought together Day and Ellis, who live in Silver Lake — she plays a waitress whom Day's subliterate barkeep Charlie lusts after. They met as fellow theater actors in New York City in 2001 — "We just hit it off and I've spoken to her every day since," he said — and are expecting their first child in December.
With the new season of "Sunny" wrapped, Day will next tackle his first role in a studio tentpole film, Guillermo del Toro's monster movie, "Pacific Rim," which will afford the actor new creative terrain. "I play a scientist. This guy can read and write," Day says. "Unlike my other characters, this guy's not an idiot."
Reflecting on his summer stock days, Day said he always assumed he'd find work as an actor, if on a smaller stage.
"Thinking of Plan B muddies up your chances of succeeding at Plan A," he said. "As soon as I got my foot in the door I've been able to pay the bills. It did not occur to me that that might not happen. Maybe if you come from a lot of wealth you worry about not having it, but if you're comfortable living in a ratty apartment, you don't worry about going back to it. Although now I'd be worried about going back to it. No more tiny apartments in New York."