Ty Burrell, the actor who plays Phil Dunphy on ABC’s “Modern Family,” has an unusual doubleheader next Sunday.
The lifelong Rams fan will go from watching the team once known as “The Greatest Show on Turf” to a ceremony honoring the greatest shows on television.
Burrell is going to the first half of the Rams’ historic home opener, then scrambling to the Emmy Awards.
“I don’t think I’ve ever changed into a tuxedo in a car before,” said Burrell, 49. “Though if you’d asked me before “Modern Family,” I would have answered that I’d never changed into a tuxedo anywhere before.”
But now that Burrell — and the Rams — have gone Hollywood, there is plenty of reason for both sides to break out their Sunday best. The opener against Seattle will be the first regular-season Rams game at the Coliseum since the team moved to Anaheim in 1980, and subsequently to St. Louis in 1995.
“It just feels like the best dream ever,” he said, relaxing on the set during a “Modern Family” lunch break.
That goes double for the league, which sees the return of the Rams as further strengthening the ties between the NFL and the entertainment industry.
“Not only will the entertainment industry benefit from having the Rams in Los Angeles, but so will the NFL,” said New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch, who has produced a long list of major motion pictures, among them “Risky Business,” “Forrest Gump,” and “American History X.”
The Rams have an illustrious history with Hollywood, lots of famous fans, and even some players who crossed over and tried their hand at acting, including Fred Dryer, Merlin Olsen, and Rosey Grier.
In the 1978 comedy “Heaven Can Wait,” Warren Beatty played Joe Pendleton, a quarterback who led the Rams to a mythical Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers before he was accidentally taken away from his body by an overanxious angel. Long before that, actual Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield was married to sex symbol Jane Russell.
“We used to stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the night before the games I would go to check in about two hours earlier,” recalled Jackie Slater, a Hall of Fame Rams tackle. “I would go there just to sit in the lobby and watch all these Hollywood stars walk through like it’s no big deal. I was just coming from back in Mississippi, and I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”
If the 2015 Rams were to stage an audition for their biggest and most devoted celebrity fan, the part would belong to Burrell, who made trips to St. Louis each year to see games and follows the franchise religiously.
There’s no obvious reason why Burrell would grow up a Rams fan. He was raised in Applegate, Ore., just north of the California border. It would have been more logical, proximity-wise, for him to grow up a fan of the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers.
Burrell’s father was from Chino, though, and his family was filled with die-hard Rams fans.
“We had these amazing uncles and aunts, they were really lovely and warm, and we were all trying to win their affection,” Burrell said. “Basically, the Rams became our conduit. We watched them religiously, so that when we saw family again we could talk to them about the Rams.”
“I was 11 or 12, and I’d read everything about them,” he said. “It was weird, I lived in a tiny town in Oregon, out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, and I could tell you who was the third-string defensive tackle for the Rams.”
For that little boy in Oregon, the Rams’ loss to the Steelers in the 1979 Super Bowl was almost too much to bear.
“Like most fans, I remember the catches from [John] Stallworth and [Lynn] Swann,” he said, wincing at the memory. “It still hurts now. But at that age, we were just destroyed. Our household was destroyed by that loss.”
Because he never lived in the same region as the Rams, and had seen only one game live — an exhibition game, at that — Burrell wasn’t heartbroken when the franchise moved to St. Louis.
“We sort of had a Pavlovian response to the horns,” he said. “That was enough for us. As long as the uniforms were going to basically be the same, we still had the same relationship with the team.”
At the end of the 2000 season, Burrell again got the chance to see his favorite team in the Super Bowl. This time, the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in a nail-biter, 23-16.
Burrell calls that one of the best and worst memories of his life.
He had hoped to watch the game alone.
“I know there are sports fans who know what this means,” he said. “Because if you are so obsessive about something, you just want to watch it alone. You don’t want to hear opinions about your team. You don’t want to hear opinions about anything else.”
Little did he know, his bride, Holly, had made different plans.
“My wife invited her friend over to watch the game who didn’t know football,” he said. “In any other circumstance, I would have loved to explain the game. But I spent our whole Super Bowl victory explaining the game of football to a lovely person who was sitting next to me. And I’m going, ‘No, so now we kick the ball…’ It was at a time when my wife and I were working at a theater company in D.C. and didn’t have the money for a [VCR] or anything to record it.
“In retrospect, I actually love that memory because it should be that way in a weird way.”
“Modern Family,” a comedy in which the actors often speak directly into the camera, has been wildly successful since it debuted in 2009. The show won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of its first five years, tying the record set by “Frasier.”
Burrell has won Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series twice, as has fellow cast member Eric Stonestreet, a devoted Kansas City Chiefs fan. Burrell’s wife on the show, Julie Bowen, has twice won Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
The Rams have not been so successful of late. Their last winning season was 2003, so it can accurately be said they haven’t had a winning season in the Modern (Family) era.
Still, Burrell is almost overwhelmed with the thought they’re now his hometown team.
“Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to happen,” he said of the NFL giving the team permission to move back to Los Angeles. “The news leading up to that really made it feel like the Carson plan was ahead. So part of me was resigned.
“So when we got the news, it was as if one of the Burrells had landed on the moon. The phones blew up.”
It stands to reason, then, that for Burrell — and the rest of a metropolis re-embracing the nation’s No. 1 sports league — next Sunday’s game is an A-list event. The red carpet can wait.