Ed O'Neill: The Straight Man

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Art Streiber

O'Neill filmed "The Dogs of War" in 1980 and "never worked a job other than acting again."

The "Modern Family" actor -- and first-time Emmy nominee -- explains comedy and how it feels to get his Walk of Fame star.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers hadn't cut the Youngstown State rookie defensive lineman from their training camp roster in 1969, when he was 23, Ed O'Neill's career path might not have led to TV stardom in Married … With Children, Modern Family (season two of which arrives Sept. 20 on DVD and Blu-ray) and more than 50 other film and TV roles. For his efforts, the first-time Emmy nominee, 65, is being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As he recently drove to a Modern Family table read that has the clan heading to a Western dude ranch in the show's second fall episode, O'Neill spoke to THR about his career.

Was it devastating to be cut from the Steelers?

I suppose it was because I didn't know what else I was going to do. I was adrift for a while. I worked as a substitute teacher; I sold cars. Then I saw an ad in the paper for The Rainmaker at the local playhouse. I had done some acting in high school. I was terrible. Eventually, I got better and started playing lead roles. One thing led to another, and Bill Friedkin saw me in Knockout on Broadway and put me in the [1980 film] Cruising with Al Pacino.

Last year, there was much hullabaloo over you not being nominated for an Emmy. Do you feel a bit vindicated?

If you had told me, "Every adult member of the cast will be nominated but you," I would have said, "I'll take that bet." When it happened, I found it amusing. This year, when we all got nominated, I was glad because it's less stuff to bother with. If I had been excluded again, I would have been faced with people talking about it a lot. It worked out better this way.

Was it an intentional strategy to have everyone submit in the supporting actor categories?

I don't think so. They asked me what category I wanted to be in, lead or supporting. I said, "We're all doing the same thing; it's a true ensemble." I don't have the balls to say I should be up for best actor and the rest should be up for best supporting.

Do you think being funny is a learned or innate trait?

Honestly, I think it's innate. I do know that when I was a boy, I had very funny uncles. I used to love to hear them tell stories and would emulate them. Early on, I was kind of funny -- not in jokey ways but in storytelling.

Are you a joke teller?

I was never a joke teller. I don't even like jokes, for the most part. I don't like to hear them, and rarely can I even remember one.

Do you consider yourself a comedian?

No. I always think of myself as an actor first. If I'm out socially with a bunch of comedians, I don't say two words. I just let them do their bits.

So you're the straight man.

I am, in a sense. The character of Jay Pritchett [on Modern Family] is a guy who lets everything roll and revolve around him. There can be a lot of high jinks going on, and he just tries to keep everything calm. It affords me the real luxury of underplaying a lot, which is my favorite kind of acting.


It's just more fun, real and interesting. It feels better to me than big stuff. There's a place for big stuff, but you have to be judicious with it. It can get away from you.

Who are your comedy icons?

Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis. I always loved that straight-man/funny-guy setup.

What do you watch?

Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David just makes me laugh. I don't watch a lot of the network shows, but I do watch our show.

Is it weird to watch yourself on TV?

No, I'm used to it. But there are some things that I've done that I have trouble watching.

Like what?

There's a [1991] movie I did with John Hughes called Dutch. Then there's a [1989] movie I did for Disney called Disorganized Crime. I'm terrible -- the whole thing is over the top. I should have known better, but I went with it and it was horrible.

How to you feel about getting the Walk of Fame honor?

I was a little taken aback when my manager called me six months ago and said, "Hey, they want to give you a star." I said, "Why?" And he said, "Well, you know, you've been around and you've done things."              

Walk of Fame Ceremony
11:30 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 30
WHERE: 7021 Hollywood Blvd. in front of a shoe store (Al Bundy would be proud)
GUEST SPEAKERS: Steve Levitan, Katey Sagal, Sofia Vergara