Although the name Ty Burrell today is known to millions of people around the world thanks to his portrayal for eight seasons as the goofy and lovable father and realtor Phil Dunphy in Modern Family, the actor spent many years struggling in Hollywood. Burrell said he never dreamed while studying acting in college at the University of Oregon and in graduate school at Penn State University that one day he’d be known for “Phil’s osophies.” There are entire websites, and even a book, dedicated to Phil’s words of wisdom like “You can learn a lot about a person by reading their biography” and “Marry someone who looks sexy when they’re disappointed.”
“It’s been really fun to see that take off, but very few of them are mine,” Burrell said. “I may have one or two in there that I have contributed, but most of them are just really, really good writing.”
When pushed to reveal one “Philism,” Burrell thought for a moment and then said: “Always look people directly in the eye, and if they’re blind tell them you’re looking them in the eye.”
He admitted there may be one or two others, but the vast majority of those hilarious words of wisdom are from the writers. But he did receive one from his father.
“My dad’s philosophy was, ‘Don’t hurt anybody,’” Burrell said. “I think that’s a pretty good one. It can get deep.”
It can also get strange out in public, when Phil’s-osophy stares him directly in the face. They’re everywhere from books to cards to T-shirts.
“It’s always an amazing and surreal thing to walk down a card aisle or see somebody’s T-shirt or something like that and see something that you said, something that came out of your mouth,” Burrell said. “It pretty much feels like a hallucination, but it’s the best hallucination, for sure.”
Phil Dunphy has become larger than life. Burrell not only plays realtor Dunphy on the hit ABC sitcom, he also plays him in a series of commercials for the National Association of Realtors. And he has custom Phil’s-osophies like, “A slow home buyer is a no home buyer. Navigating the real estate world takes cat-like reflexes.”
Having worked with Burrell on three sitcoms over the past decade, Lloyd and his team of writers know him well. Burrell admits that after playing Phil for eight season, at a certain point you can’t deny certain qualities about yourself if you see them reflected back at you all the time.
“I have to acknowledge that I have a lot of Phil’s qualities,” Burrell said. “There’s no pretending I’m not oblivious in some pretty major ways.”
One thing that might separate Burrell from Phil Dunphy is his dedication to charity work. The actor is heavily involved with Kids in the Spotlight, a non-profit organization that works with youth in foster care programs helping them express their personal stories and learn more about the film industry as they create, write, cast and star in their own short films.
“Ultimately, what we would like is for this to be able to go into group homes in foster care systems all over the country,” Burrell said. “Right now there’s only enough funding for three group homes, which is a lot to manage on their end. But if we can grow this then maybe this is something that kids in group homes everywhere will get a chance to tell their story.”
Smartphones and tablets have opened up all sorts of new creative avenues for kids and Burrell sees a future in leveraging technology to elevate underprivileged youth.
“It’s actually been really good to see kids being able to make films more readily,” Burrell said. “I remember when I was in my early 20s we’d have to rent a video camera for three days. It was all on one tape, so you’d have to go through and find what you got and it was really hard. And we couldn’t even afford to buy our own camera. Now with cameras on every new iteration of phones and tablets, it’s becoming easier to make and edit really high-quality stuff.”
Or, as Phil Dunphy would say: “The most amazing things that can happen to a human being will happen to you, if you just lower your expectations.”