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Modern Family: Ty Burrell Landed The Part Of Phil Thanks To A Dennis Quaid Film

Phil Dunphy, one of the characters from "Modern Family," is easily one of the most well-known (and beloved) TV dads of recent years (if not ever). Phil is goofy, fun-loving, optimistic, and empathetic, and he's a loving father and husband. So naturally, fans quickly grew to love Phil while "Modern Family" was on the air.

Of course, the key to the success of Phil is the actor who plays him, Ty Burrell, who excels at bringing the character to life (and has multiple Emmy wins to prove it). And Burrell may now be a household name thanks to his nine years on the hit sitcom, but he was relatively unknown before landing the part. So how did Burrell end up playing Phil on "Modern Family"?

According to co-creator Christopher Lloyd, it's all thanks to a Dennis Quaid film. In Marc Freeman's 2020 book "The Untold Oral History of One of Television's Ground­breaking Sitcoms," Lloyd explained how he came to write the character of Phil specifically for Burrell. Lloyd said, "I'd seen Ty in a Dennis Quaid movie ['In Good Company'] about office politics. He had this crazy pageboy haircut, with this deadpan, no-affect delivery. He was a hilarious character with a smallish role, but he jumped off the screen."

However, despite the character being written for Burrell — and despite "In Good Company" leading to an instantly good first impression with Lloyd — it wasn't so easy for him to land the part — in fact, it took a grueling 12 weeks.

Burrell didn't have sitcom experience when he met Lloyd

Mere days after "Modern Family" co-creator Christopher Lloyd saw Ty Burrell in "In Good Company," Burrell came in to audition for "Out of Practice," a sitcom co-created for Lloyd prior to "Modern Family." It may come as a surprise to fans of the latter show, but, at the time, Burrell didn't have any sitcom experience which made him an unlikely candidate to land the part he was after on "Out of Practice."

Lloyd explained in the book, "Ty was a knock-around New York stage actor. He was 36, offbeat. That scares studios and networks because they get leery of anyone approaching 40 who hasn't made their mark yet." Regardless, he ended up landing the part, but, unfortunately, the show ran for just one season from 2005 to 2006. But Burrell had already made a major impression on Lloyd, so Lloyd cast him in a part in another sitcom, "Back to You," which he co-created with Steven Levitan — who he would go on to co-create "Modern Family" with. Again, it only lasted one season. But, during this time, Burrell really got to know Lloyd and Levitan — and the creators got to see the goofy side of Burrell that fans would recognize as essential to Phil. Burrell said, "I think Steve, Chris, and I spent enough time around each other offscreen that my dopey but well-intended side may have come out."

So it ended up being for the best that neither of those sitcoms worked out because next came "Modern Family."

Lloyd and Levitan wrote Phil specifically for Burrell to play — but he still had hurdles to overcome to land the part

Because Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan had already gotten to know Ty Burrell while working on these shows that lasted one sitcom, they were then able to write a character that was his perfect fit: Phil Dunphy.

In the oral history, Levitan explained, "We wrote Phil for Ty because there's something about the fact that this guy is unrelentingly nice, never stops trying, and is a big kid. All of that applies to Ty." Further, they knew that Burrell's talents hadn't been utilized to the fullest quite yet. Lloyd said, "We knew him to be an extremely inventive and funny actor who hadn't been properly exploited yet by Hollywood. We thought, 'This guy is waiting to be a star.'

However, ABC executives weren't sold on Burrell right away because of Burrell's part in a failed pilot, "Fourplay." In it, Burrell had played a character that was meant to be dull — or, in other words, the opposite of Phil. As Levitan explained it, Burrell played the dull character so well that the studio thought that he was actually dull. Eventually, Levitan and Lloyd managed to persuade the executives to bring Burrell in for a screen test, which didn't go well — Burrell says he was too nervous. Eventually, they managed to get Burrell a second screen test, which also didn't land him the part. They went on to see over 200 other actors for the role without being able to cast it.

Burrell finally landed the role thanks to the show's mockumentary style

After all this time, the role of Phil Dunphy still wasn't cast — and Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd still wanted Ty Burrell for the role. Since Burrell's two in-person auditions didn't go well, they decided to try filming a scene with him in the mockumentary style that was planned for "Modern Family." Alongside Sarah Hyland and a kid who was going for the part of Luke, they shot a few scenes at Levitan's house to showcase Burrell — one scene involved Phil and Haley talking, another was the scene from the pilot in which Burrell shoots Luke in the backyard.

In "The Untold Oral History of One of Television's Ground­breaking Sitcoms," Burrell said, "That's really where I owe them, because they went way beyond to film it. They knew that the script needed to be filmed but also that I needed every bit of help that I could get after stinking up a couple of screen tests." Burrell also noted that it was definitely a leap of faith on his part — both his wife and his agent encouraged him to just let it go after so many rejections.

Finally, because of the scenes they had shot, Burrell landed the part. Claudia Lyon, the vice president of casting at ABC, said, "It was like looking at magic happen. It was so funny, the way the words and jokes landed. It felt right immediately. And Samie Falvey, the ABC head of comedy, added, "It was really one of the funniest things I'd ever seen."