Somehow it seems appropriate that actor Ty Burrell, one of the stars of the hit ABC comedy "Modern Family" lives in Salt Lake City. The well-meaning but awkward dad he plays on the sitcom would feel right at home in Utah's family-centric culture.
"The part was written with me in mind, which is a little terrifying when you think about Phil," he said about his character during a recent interview over lunch at a downtown Salt Lake City cafe.
Burrell, along with an ensemble cast that includes Julie Bowen ("Ed") and Ed O'Neill ("Married . . . With Children"), stars in one of the few bona fide hits of the new fall TV season (it airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on KTVX Channel 4).
"Modern Family" is a mockumentary in the style of "The Office" that traces the lives of three intertwining families. The retired Jay (O'Neill) is married to a younger Colombian woman (Sofia Vergara). Meanwhile, his daughter Claire (Bowen) is married to Phil in a traditional family with three children. Finally, Jay's gay son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) has adopted a newborn with his partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet).
All of the families tackle their problems in distinct ways, but it's Phil who wants to be the "cool" father. He tries to connect with his teenage daughter and preteen kids, often with embarrassing results.
"There's a certain amount of me in Phil that, hilariously, I can't ignore," Burrell said. "I'm prone to putting my foot in my mouth and being oblivious and delusional."
Born and raised in Oregon, Burrell was attending the University of Oregon when he was bit by the proverbial acting bug. "I did this goofy improv of a very vain Renaissance character in an acting-Shakespeare class," he recalls. "I don't think it went over well at all, but I had such a blast. I don't know why, but there was something so freeing about the improvising. It was just me having a good time. And I went immediately from that class over to the registrar's office and changed my major to acting."
Since then, Burrell followed an actor's usual path, with stints living in New York City, where he worked as a waiter, bartender, tour guide, telemarketer and caterer while seeking out auditions.
Previously, his biggest television roles were as a doctor in 2005's "Out of Practice" and a weather man in 2007's "Back to You," both of which were canceled after one season. He also appeared in the films "Black Hawk Down," the "Dawn of the Dead" remake and the recent "The Incredible Hulk" film. He'll soon co-star on the big screen in the next Harrison Ford comedy, "Morning Glory."
While Hollywood has kept Burrell busy, he has called Utah home since he was introduced to the state while performing years ago at Cedar City's Utah Shakespearean Festival. He was a background actor in such plays as "Henry V" and "Hamlet." "I would say something like, 'Anon my lord, news from the east,' he recalls. "I'd come running in panting and bow to a knee."
His wife, Holly, is a Utah native -- born and raised near Fruit Heights -- and the pair decided to move to Salt Lake City a year ago.
"One of the first things we talked about was the Utah landscape and how much we both loved it," he said. "Ever since then, it was kind of in the back of our minds that we would move here."
If "Modern Family" is renewed for more seasons, "it will be the most stable job I've had in my life." He plans to spend half of the year in Hollywood while recuperating the other half here.
"Utah is an amazing place for getting in and out of L.A. It's really easy," he said. "As my wife calls it: 'The antidote to L.A.'"
Burrell is so in love with the state's scenic beauty that he serves on the board of Grand Canyon Trust, an advocacy group aimed at protecting and restoring the Colorado Plateau. He was turned on to the cause by friend and fellow actor Edward Norton ("Fight Club").
"It's just so different to me from L.A.," Burrell said. "Utah to me is like the west I always imagined. In 10 minutes, we can be out into land that I only dreamed about. It's just so open and optimistic."