Five years ago, Ty Burrell was ready to quit acting. He was 41 years old and had a solid couple of decades in the business behind him: a handful of Hollywood movies (Black Hawk Down, Dawn of the Dead, The Incredible Hulk), countless summers of Shakespeare, including a Macbeth on Broadway, enough television roles to fill an A4 page. Not bad, better than most, but no killer role to lift him from slogging around the audition circuit to walking the red carpet.
A couple of potential big breaks - a lead in the CBS plastic surgery sitcom Out of Practice, and a starring role opposite Kelsey Grammer in his first post-Frasier series, Back to You - had both been axed in a matter of months. His wife, Holly, whom he met at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company in 1999, had swapped acting for being a pastry chef years ago. They were thinking about having children. Time for a change.
''We were having serious discussions about me getting out of the business. If you get into something you really feel good about, it's the best job on earth,'' says Burrell. ''But the day-to-day thing of auditioning and pilot season - that part can be really challenging. Doing 150 performances of a play you're kinda embarrassed by. It's not as romantic as it sometimes gets made out to be.'' Acting had become a drag. ''It felt like, especially at the age of 40, 41 - OK, this is maybe a good chapter break if I were going to do something else.'' What might that have been? ''Well. That's partly why I didn't leave. I'm not burdened with another skill set. I think I probably would have taught theatre … my only option.''
It never came to that. In 2009, Burrell was cast in a new family sitcom from Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, the team behind Frasier. He had already worked with them on the aforementioned Back to You, playing an inept reporter. Lloyd and Levitan needed a well-meaning but calamity-prone father figure.
The first episode of Modern Family was broadcast in 2009. A mockumentary that follows one family split over three quite different households, it is the most successful comedy to come out of America since Friends. Now in its fifth season, it pulls in 12 million viewers an episode. The whole cast is currently in Australia filming a special episode at locations including Bondi Beach, the Harbour Bridge and the Great Barrier Reef.
These days Burrell and his on-screen relatives are thought to command about $US175,000 ($195,000) each episode, a salary that is likely to rise to $US350,000 ($388,000) each episode by the time they reach the end of their current eight-series contract. And after that? ''I think we all hope for more,'' he says. ''I just can't imagine getting burnt out on that show.'' Twelve, 15 series? ''I hope so. I would love it!''
As Phil Dunphy, the head of an all-American nuclear family, Burrell is the show's big, dumb, comic heart. His father-in-law, Jay (played by Ed O'Neill), and Jay's second wife, Gloria (Sofia Vergara), are noisier; his brother-in-law, Mitchell, and partner Cameron, more hysterical, but Big Phil is the character who pops up most frequently on T-shirts - WWPDD, or What Would Phil Dunphy Do? is a popular design - and has Tumblrs dedicated to his brand of paternal philosophy, or ''Phil's Osophy''. ''Watch a sunrise at least once a day,'' he deadpans. ''When life gives you lemonade, make lemons. Life will be all, like, whaaaaat?''
Is there much competition over who gets the best lines? ''There really isn't. We're lucky to be in a situation where everyone is written to very evenly. We're spoilt - myself, Eric [Stonestreet, who plays Cam] and Sofia - we get material that's a little bit broader or more outlandish,'' he grins. ''Sometimes we may get to have some more fun than the others.''
They film in LA, three sitting rooms lined up in a row on an echoing sound stage. ''So I get to watch the other two families like any other fan,'' he says. ''Five seasons in I'm still reading scripts where I think, 'That might be our best script yet', which is almost unheard of. When it started, writers' comedy was sort of dead in the US.''
Unlike those churlish rock stars who refuse to play their No. 1 single at gigs, Burrell talks about Modern Family - ''Our Show'' - at every opportunity. He loves Phil like an older brother. ''I do. I really do. He's just such a well-intended person and guileless … It can be really fun playing a villain, because you get to say things you never get to say in reality. But it's harder. I don't know what it would be like to play [one] every day on a series.''
Burrell has played his fair share of villains - from a smug zombie hunter in Dawn of the Dead, to an evil corporal in Evolution. You can see what casting directors were thinking. He is darkly handsome with Dracula eyebrows and a low rumble of a voice. Today he is wearing owlish tortoiseshell glasses and a cosy, chunky cardigan, but stick him in a slick suit and shiny shoes and he could easily pass for a cad. ''Basically, my type was what they would call in American sports a 'tweener'. I'm not quite leading man material but I was never super character-y either. I was just sort of floating between these worlds, hoping for a job. In film, that leaves you as the villain, casts you as the asshole, for want of a better term. I've played a lot of bad guys. Smarmy types.''
What he really wanted to do was comedy. ''Comedy is more egalitarian. If you suit the material, it really isn't as much about the look. For example, on our show, Eric Stonestreet was not meant to play Cam. He didn't look the part, and he's straight. Also, they had none of that about his size, and he's a big guy. But that's a really cool thing about comedy - if you come in and you kill it, which he did, then they just change it. You can make that comedy come alive.''
Growing up in Applegate, Oregon, Burrell thought he would be a footballer one day. ''Which is absurd, because I was so not qualified.'' When he was 20, he got a summer job as a barman at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the largest rep theatre company in America, which happened to be down the road from him. After shifts he would sneak into the back row and watch whatever was on. One afternoon he saw Death of a Salesman and that was that. It was a late start, but a committed one. He studied theatre arts at the University of Oregon and then for a masters at Penn State. ''I was so scared of the real world of auditioning, I ended up studying theatre for, like, seven years. If I could have got a PhD in 'Acting Research', I would have.''
As a graduate he lived out of his van for a while before getting his first job as a spear carrier in Pericles at Utah Shakespeare Festival. ''Those are some of my best memories. Those were really fun summers. Everybody's young and single and you get to watch these actors you really admire, day in, day out. I learnt a lot.''
Eventually, it began to pall. ''Honestly, I got a little burnt out on Shakespeare. It sounds crazy to say that about Shakespeare, but that is actually true. The language was always satisfying, but trying to make the plot seem plausible … I was always thinking: 'I don't know if I can make this wedding at the end of this scene look like it really came from anything real.' Occasionally you'd do a production that you felt great about. But to make a living in regional theatre, maybe you're in one production that you feel good about and then one that you don't.'' Playing Macduff on Broadway in 2000 and starring opposite Stephen Dillane in Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2005 were highlights. Nevertheless, if he did ever become a drama teacher, he would tell his students in their first class that the real job of an actor is auditioning, not acting. ''That's really the day-to-day life. You get the call at 2pm and they want you there by 4.30pm.''
These days, auditions are less of an ordeal, part of the ''embarrassment of riches'' Modern Family has brought with it. In between filming 24 episodes a season, he has found time for two new movies. In Muppets Most Wanted, he plays a non-puppet Inspector Jean-Pierre Napoleon, ''an amalgam of every French inspector you've ever seen in your life''. This month, he stars in Mr Peabody and Sherman, a typically smart new cartoon from DreamWorks. He voices the world's cleverest dog who goes time travelling with his ''pet'' son. Another father figure.
Burrell's father died of cancer when he was a student. When he got the part on Modern Family, he had no children, but in 2010, he and his wife adopted a baby girl, Frances (he has, he says, ''apathetic sperm''). They adopted another daughter in 2012. So far, he says, his experience of fatherhood is closer to that of Mitchell and Cam and their adopted daughter, Lily, than it is to Phil's.
He splits his time between LA and Utah, his wife's home state. A couple of years ago he opened a speakeasy, Bar-X, serving Bourbon Sours and Old Fashioneds, with his brother in Salt Lake City. His family, many of whom have migrated to the area, are regulars. ''Nothing,'' he says with a slow, satisfied smile, ''brings family to town like a bar.'' That's an original piece of Ty's Osophy, right there.
Mr Peabody and Sherman is out on March 27.