In 2009, America first got a glimpse at one of the smartest, funniest sitcoms of our generation, Modern Family. The show pushed the boundaries of what a family really means and strives to relate and appeal to a wide range of families and different kinds of relationships. There’s no doubt about it, the talented actors are what truly make the show the success it is thanks to their excellent storytelling and fun character choices. But what shaped these actors to be the dynamic, interesting characters they are on the show?
While the entire cast of Modern Family are extremely well cast and good at what they do, most of them really didn’t see their big break until they landed their roles on Modern Family. Sure, some of the leads on the show were known from previous roles, but it wasn’t until their stints on Modern Family that these actors truly became superstars and real household names.
Learning about some of our favorite actors’ early roles helps us really appreciate the actors they’ve become and we can’t help but respect them for it. So next time you’re rifling through some old ’90s reruns, or are watching old movies on Netflix, look out for some of your favorite actors before they truly made a splash on the hit sitcom, Modern Family.
15. Ty Burrell in Black Hawk Down
Although Ty Burrell had smaller roles in a couple different films and shows, the breakout sitcom, Modern Family served as the actor’s legitimate “big break”. It’s hard to imagine Ty Burrell as anything but the goofy, oftentimes clueless dad on the hit sitcom, Modern Family. But before he landed the role as Phil Dunphy on the sitcom, he played Air Force Tech Sgt., Tim Watkinson in hit action film, Black Hawk Down in 2001. The movie was only Burrell’s second film in his career, but he obviously made an impression. The film depicted a true event in history, in which U.S. soldiers are released into Somalia to two of the biggest lieutenants of a crazy warlord who are forced to battle against some seriously armed Somalians. The film was filled with other big names like Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom and Hugh Dancy.
14. Ed O’Neill on Popeye Doyle
While it’s easy to assume Ed O’Neill‘s big break was as the tired, cranky grandpa Jay Pritchett on Modern Family, he actually was the lead in the racy sitcom, Married With Children back in the late ’80s/early ’90s. But before he made it big as a sitcom star, O’Neill played a handful of small roles on various shows and movies. O’Neill landed the role of NYPD Police Detective, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle on the television series, Popeye Doyle. The show was planned to air as an episodic television series, but didn’t actually get picked up. Instead, Popeye Doyle aired as a two-hour television special. The character of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle was actually first played by actor, Gene Hackman in the film, French Connection. While O’Neill was praised for his performance in the film, many would have never guessed he’d go on to be on two of the most well-known sitcoms ever.
13. Julia Bowen in Happy Gilmore
Before Julia Bowen played Claire Dunphy, the hilariously intense mom on Modern Family, she played quite a few roles on both TV and on the silver screen. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Bowen began to solidify her career in the early to mid ’90s as a working actress in Los Angeles. She had small roles here and there, but really made a name for herself when she landed the part of actor Adam Sandler’s girlfriend in the hit comedy, Happy Gilmore. Given that at that time, Adam Sandler had a huge fan demographic, this role really helped to launch Bowen into her acting career. Once Happy Gilmore became a hit, Bowen began getting cast in all kinds of shows and films in the late ’90s and early ’00s, like Multiplicity and American Wolf in Paris.
12. Sarah Hyland in Private Parts
26 year-old, Sarah Hyland has been playing the part of Haley Dunphy on Modern Family for the entire duration of the show– and while she may be ditzy and out of whack on many occasions, we have to admit she really has grown on us over the years. Hyland started her acting career very early and has been acting in various shows and movies since the early age of four. Hyland’s very first role was on Howard Stern‘s Private Parts, where she played his young daughter. Hyland landed the role in 1997 after her dad sent in a VHS tape of the young actress auditioning for the part. Hyland was only four years old at the time, she has admitted to getting bit by the acting bug immediately after her first role, and was quick to take on somewhat of a diva persona. Little did she know, Hyland’s biggest role of her career would be somewhat of a diva as well.
11. Sofia Vergara in Travel Series
It’s hard to think of Modern Family and not fantasize about the gorgeous, saucy Gloria Pritchett played by actress, Sofia Vergara. While Vergara has become a household name in the U.S. over the past ten years, the actress really didn’t make a name for herself in the U.S. until Modern Family came along. Vergara raised her family and modeled in Columbia, but when she moved to Miami in 1994, she landed a job hosting a travel show called, Fuera de Serie or “Out of the Ordinary”. Along with her co-host, Vergara traveled around different exotic spots showing audiences her fun, wild side– and her killer body in many colorful bikinis. The show really gave her a start in the U.S. thanks to Spanish-speaking American viewers.
10. Rico Rodríguez in Epic Movie
Rico Rodriquez was perfectly cast as Manny, the careful, sweet son of Jay and Gloria Pritchett. On Modern Family, Manny is always showing his romantic side by writing poems and giving undeserving girls tokens of his affection. However, his role in Epic Movie was quite different than his role on Modern Family. Rodriguez played Chanchito, an adorable child in Epic Movie. The film was a satire, poking fun at the king-size blockbuster flicks that take over the box office, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pirates of the Caribbean and Superman. Little did Rodriguez know, he would be making it in the big leagues just a couple years after Epic Movie hit theaters.
9. Sarah Hyland in TV Remake of Annie
While Modern Family fans adore Sarah Hyland as Haley Dunphy on the show, many have no idea she actually has a strong theatre background. In 1999, Hyland danced around with messy hair and ratty clothes as orphan, Molly in the made-for-TV remake of Annie. The remake included some seriously great actors like Kathy Bates, Victor Garber and Alan Cumming. Sarah Hyland showed off her pipes in classic songs like “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life”. Sarah first showed off her beautiful singing voice in her broadway debut as Jackie, in the original cast of Grey Gardens on Broadway. Today, we have the pleasure of hearing Hyland’s voice more and more on the radio and online in songs like Closer by The Chainsmokers.
8. Eric Stonestreet in Malcolm in the Middle
Without a doubt, one of our favorite characters on Modern Family is the hilarious, dramatic in-law, Cameron Tucker. While on the show, Eric Stonestreet plays an over-dramatic, colorful character, his other roles are oftentimes completely different– proving Stonestreet to be an extremely dynamic actor. Believe it or not, Stonestreet landed a small role on the hilarious sitcom, Malcolm in the Middle as Phil the exterminator. On the show, he proves to be a match for the hard-headed, not-taking-crap mother, Lois. After his role on Malcolm in the Middle, Stonestreet continued to have small roles on TV here and there, but it wasn’t until he was cast on Modern Family that he really became a household name.
7. Rico Rodriguez in Cory in the House
One of Rico Rodriguez’s small roles pre-Modern Family days was on Disney’s show, Cory in the House. The show was actually a spin-off of Disney’s successful comedy, That’s so Raven, in which little brother Cory and his dad jet off to the White House to become the president’s live-in personal chef. While Rico’s role was super small, it obviously was an important step in his growing career– he got cast as Manny Delgado in Modern Family shortly after. The show was only on for a year before Disney pulled the plug and it was officially taken off the air.
6. Eric Stonestreet in Almost Famous
While Eric Stonestreet may have played particularly small roles over the years, many of them are hard to forget– and they’re even more fun to re-discover now that we are so familiar with the Modern Family actor. One of these memorable roles is without a doubt in Almost Famous, when Stonestreet plays a disgruntled hotel clerk. His one line may have been simple, but it was one of the funniest in the move: “Your mom called… she freaked me out, man”. Years later, after Stonestreet became a household name, someone on Twitter brought the role to everyone’s attention, causing both the actor and film director, Cameron Crowe to comment on it. Pretty hilarious. The role while small, made a big impression on casting directors and catapulted the actor’s career. Who knows if Stonestreet hadn’t landed this role if he would have been cast in a show like Modern Family.
5. Jesse Tyler Ferguson in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
We know that Modern Family just wouldn’t be the same without Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the cautious, sweet and over-achieving Mitchell Pritchett. Before his stint on the popular sitcom, Ferguson didn’t have much screen time at all. Most of his acting experience was gained on stage as a theatre actor. In New York, Ferguson was in an array of off-Broadway and Broadway productions including the Tony-winning play, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as Leaf Coneybear; a role he himself originated. While Ferguson is clearly a talented stage actor, he is equally as wonderful on the small screen, proving he is a truly versatile actor.
4. Ty Burrell in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
In 2006, Ty Burrell starred alongside Nicole Kidman in the movie Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. In the film, Burrell plays Kidman’s husband and they have two children together. Over the course of the movie, Kidman’s character becomes enchanted by a mysterious man who suffers from a disorder that causes him to have excessive hair all over his body. While Burrell showed that he had some pretty good acting chops in the film, Fur wasn’t very well received by critics. The movie actually made Siskel and Ebert’s “Worst of 2006” movie list. Yikes. He’s likely not too proud of that…
3. Julie Bowen on Weeds
While Julie Bowen plays the wholesome mom we all wish we had on Modern Family, she definitely played the opposite on HBO’s hit dramedy, Weeds. Bowen was cast as Lisa in the show in 2008, just before she starred as Claire Dunphy on Modern Family. On Weeds, she plays a pot-dealer who also works at a cheese shop and has a sexy affair with a 17-year old. She filmed quite a few naughty scenes on the show and has admitted the character of Lisa to be “the wildest role she ever had”. Bowen also admitted that while she was glad to be playing a more racy character, wrapping her head around pretending to have oral sex with a teenager was a bit difficult for her. But, as we saw on the show, Bowen was truly a good sport and did a great job playing Lisa on the show.
2. Eric Stonestreet on CSI
Eric Stonestreet strayed from his general quirky, funny side and played a serious lab technician on the original crime show, CSI for twelve episodes. Stonestreet’s character, Ronnie Litre appeared in a handful of episodes over the course of five seasons, proving that while the role may have been minor, it was definitely important in the storytelling process. On the show, Stonestreet’s character was known as the “questionable documents tech”. Stonestreet also guest starred in dramas like ER, West Wing, Providence, Crossing Jordan and Bones. Given the fact that the actor has us crying with laughter every week as Cam on Modern Family, who knew Stonestreet could be so serious?
1. Ariel Winter on ER
We love Ariel Winter as the brainy, witty middle sister, Alex Dunphy on Modern Family and have a hard time picturing her playing any other role since she plays it so well. A lot of Winter’s early acting experience consists of voice-over work, but some of her earliest television roles include a small part on the successful drama, ER. In the episode, Winter played a young girl who’s mother is seriously hurt in a car accident, leaving her in need of a caretaker. Winter also had guest spots on shows like Criminal Minds and in films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and One Missed Call. But without a doubt, Winter’s big break was as Alex Dunphy on Modern Family.