The veteran actor talks about his role as patriarch Jay Pritchett—for which he’s received three consecutive Emmy noms—on ABC’s top comedy, Modern Family.
Actor Ed O’Neill
Tavis: For five seasons, ABC’s “Modern Family” has consistently been at the top of the ratings list while also grabbing multiple Emmys. 18 wins so far, 57 nominations. That’s sick [laugh]. In fact, the sitcom has won two Best Comedy honors for the last four years in a row.
Of course, a major contributor to that streak, bam, three-time Emmy nominee, Ed O’Neill, who plays the patriarch of that family. We’ll start our conversation tonight with a scene from the season finale which tackled a very difficult family dilemma.
Tavis: You still having fun?
Ed O’Neill: I am having fun, yeah. I have a lot of fun on that show.
Tavis: I said to you when you walked on the set, you are the man because “Married With Children”, 11 seasons?
O’Neill: 11 seasons.
Tavis: Five here on “Modern Family”.
O’Neill: Finished five, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Good Lord. I mean, that’s an actor’s dream in this town to get one series. You’re like on two long-standing seasons.
O’Neill: Yeah. Very lucky, very lucky. I mean, I kind of saw this one coming, I have to say. And the first one, everyone told me not to do it. You know, they said this show is…
Tavis: “Married With Children”, don’t do it.
O’Neill: Don’t do it [laugh]. Everyone said don’t do it because no one ever heard of FOX. It was a new, fledgling, you know. I had a couple of tentative things going somewhere else and they said don’t do this, this horrible character, this horrible family. It’s funny, though, you know?
So Christmas was coming and I said we’ll do six, they’ll cancel us, nobody will get hurt, you know, and I did it.
Tavis: 11 years later…
O’Neill: 11 years later, and then this show, when I read it, I told Lloyd and Levitan I wasn’t going to do it. I met with them, one of those crazy meetings, you know. Would you meet with them? I said they do half hours. I’m not doing a half hour. I’ve done a half hour. No, meet with them. I said why do we do this? I mean, I’m not gonna do it!
But then again, I guess that’s why they do it. ‘Cause I met them, I liked them; I said I’ll watch it. I’m not doing a half hour. Then they sent me the script. I read it and I went, “Oh, damn, this is a hit show.”
Tavis: What did you see on paper then that let you know it was going to be a hit show, particularly with themes that are ahead of some Americans even today?
O’Neill: Yeah. You know, I noticed right away that the show had potential for what we call legs because the three separate families, you can go to one, the other, the other so it’s not so one family in one room that gets boring.
So I knew it had a construction that I liked and then I thought they were dealing – you know, the way it was written was very clever and the writing I could see was very, you know, top-notch.
Tavis: I read a quote from you the other day, speaking of writers, and writers oftentimes don’t get the love and the shout-out they deserve. But you’re very good about acknowledging the writers on “Modern Family”.
I read a quote from you where you make the point that, five years in, these writers have done a brilliant job – paraphrasing you – of balancing comedy with emotion.
O’Neill: That’s right.
Tavis: What did you mean by that?
O’Neill: Well, by that I meant that – and I didn’t make this up – I mean, when I worked with David Milch on a couple of shows, I learned a lot from David Milch…
Tavis: He’s a great writer.
O’Neill: He’s a great writer. And David used to say, “If you want the drama to work, it has to be set up properly. You have to earn it.” You know, our show is 22 minutes without commercials and to earn it in that brief period of time takes great writers.
You know, because it’s melodramatic and I think that they’ve done a wonderful job with that. You know, for the most part, it’s earned.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact – I want to go back to where we started this conversation about the good fortune you’ve had to be in two now long-running series. It occurs to me that both of them are family units, dysfunctional though they may be [laugh]. And whose family isn’t dysfunctional?
But your claim to fame is being a part of these two long-running series, both about families. How do you – what do you make of that?
O’Neill: I don’t know what to make of it. You know, the funny thing is that when they hired me in this one, in “Modern Family”, I’m not sure that they knew quite what to do with me because as it was written the guy was what I’m playing now, which is a very successful businessman.
And I think they were thinking, “Al Bundy? Shoe salesman? Maybe we’ll…” The pilot, I was kind of like, you know, selling mufflers or something. They never said. But it was like one of these guys that works down on, you know, Wilton and you know, in an area that – a self-made guy, in other words. Maybe opened a couple of stores and now he’s got six.
But then they went away from that, you know. No, he can do the other thing. Because this show, my job is more or less to let everything roll around me. I’m more or less reacting than in the first one I was driving. So it’s two different styles of acting and I prefer this one.
Tavis: I was about to ask if you were okay with both. Not only are you okay with it, you prefer it. Why do you prefer it?
O’Neill: I’m not sure. I prefer to underplay scenes rather than, you know, be big and drive them. And sometimes you have to do that, but I like the more natural styles.
Tavis: What do you think it says about the nation, that is to say, the millions who watch you guys every week that the country has embraced a show like “Modern Family”?
O’Neill: You know, it’s remarkable because I remember when the presidential election was happening with Obama and Romney. And I read – and this has been widely publicized – that Michelle Obama and her girls would watch it in the White House and that Mrs. Romney, it was their favorite show [laugh], so I mean…
Tavis: The only thing they had in common, huh [laugh]?
O’Neill: Yeah, the only thing they could…
Tavis: They both watched “Modern Family”, yeah.
O’Neill: Exactly. The only thing they had in common probably. I mean, it’s probably because of the conservativeness of actually the gay couple, which I’ve always said they’re the most conservative of the three families, and then my character’s a little more, you know, probably business guy.
Who knows? Conservative? We never say. I don’t know, but it seems to appeal to a large spectrum of the country.
Tavis: Because you’ve been through this once before, quite successfully, 11 seasons on, again, “Married With Children”, and because you put your finger on the pulse that this was going to be a hit when you finally agreed to do it, what’s your crystal ball tell you about how long a show like this can run successfully?
O’Neill: If I was going to guess as I’m sitting here now, I would say eight. So we’re going into six. It would make sense to go eight and with an outside possibility of a ninth year, depending on what they need. They, meaning FOX and ABC. So I think that’s probably a reasonable guess. Fine with me.
Tavis: So let’s assume you’re right that it goes at least eight, nine seasons and this may not even be on your docket now. But when you’ve had two – you’ve hit gold here. Two successful series.
O’Neill: Yes, yes.
Tavis: I mean, between the two of us, I mean, you ain’t never got to work again, I suspect, in life [laugh]. Unless you’re like most athletes. And you were, of course, drafted. You could have played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
O’Neill: That was so long ago I can’t even remember.
Tavis: Yeah, you could have played for the Steelers. But unless you’re like most athletes, when you get done, I assume that you won’t ever have to work again in life.
Do you still love what you’re doing enough to still want to do it? Or do you think you’ve just like…
O’Neill: You know, I go back and forth with that now, you know, ’cause I’ve got a place in Hawaii. And when I get over there, sometimes I think, oh, I could hang out here longer than three weeks, you know. But then, I do like to do the work. But, of course, it depends on what the work is.
O’Neill: So that I always say I’m the best – I’ve just started saying this, by the way. I don’t know why. I say I’m the best actor in America who’s never done a movie [laugh].
Now I have done a couple of movies, but, you know, I’ve never done a big-time movie because, you know, I got into it – I’m not complaining really. A little bit, I am. But I got into television and I’m a television guy, so I’ve never really had a movie career.
Tavis: Does it even interest you at this point?
Tavis: I mean, obviously, the part would have to be right, but…
O’Neill: Yeah, if it was the right part, of course, I would like to do it. It’s tricky to be break in from a place you’re not – you know, they don’t know you from.
Tavis: At the risk of touching a sensitive spot – and if I am, you slap me and I…
O’Neill: I won’t slap you.
Tavis: I was dumbfounded when I – as many times as you’ve been on this program, it had never occurred to me that you’ve been Emmy nominated multiple times.
Tavis: You’ve been on shows that won tons of Emmys. As I said here, they can’t do it without you. You know where I’m going with this.
Tavis: How do you – obviously, it doesn’t mean anything to you because you’re still doing the work. How do you process that? I don’t even want to say it.
O’Neill: They’re hard to win, you know [laugh]. You know, Tavis, I’ve never – and I tell young actors too that come on. I had one actor, not to veer off too far, but they’d say “What can I do to win one of these things?” I said, “You don’t want to worry about it.”
O’Neill: Because then you’re going to start guessing what people want to see and it’s the wrong way to approach it. I’ve never had a publicist. Someone told me – you know, it’s almost like…
Tavis: There’s the answer [laugh].
O’Neill: Yeah. I’m Raging Bull and he thinks he’s gonna become champ without us.
O’Neill: I really don’t know, but it doesn’t really – I think about it sometimes. You know, you think this is odd, but it doesn’t really – it’s not what – I don’t go to bed at night thinking of that or wake up in the morning, you know. It doesn’t concern me that much.
Tavis: Yeah. “Modern Family” just wrapped its fifth season and we’ll see how many more years they can keep this thing going.
But with all the honors and accolades on this show, I think they’ll be around a few more seasons because Ed O’Neill is part of that brilliant ensemble case. Ed, always a delight to have you on this program.
O’Neill: Oh, it’s great to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend.
O’Neill: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.