YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Emotions bubbled over during the final day of shooting “Modern Family,” but Ed O’Neill got through it by keeping his focus on getting the job done.
“They were kidding me because I was the only one not crying,” he said. “I told them, ‘I will burst into tears in a couple months while I’m getting a massage and no one will know why.’”
Shooting wrapped Feb. 21 on the final episode of the acclaimed ABC sitcom, capping a rare 11-season run. The final episode will air April 8.
O’Neill discussed “Modern Family” and what’s next for him in a March 10 phone interview from Hawaii, where he was vacationing.
The Youngstown native plays Jay Pritchett, the patriarch of the family, on the show. On the last day of shooting, he was much like his character – the calm in the eye of the storm.
“The last two weeks of shooting, there was a build up of emotion and you could feel it all around you,” he said. “It got inside of you. People were getting choked up and it built up to that last day. The last two days were long ones because the [whole cast] was together filming for 12-hour days and it became very emotional.”
That’s when his Mahoning Valley work ethic took over.
“Being from Youngstown, having worked in a steel mill and in construction and as a bartender, I am results-oriented and I was just thinking, ‘Let’s get it done and then we can have wine and cry if you want.’ ”
O’Neill said he put the situation out of his head and focused on the job at hand. “I saw actors walking off in tears and then coming back and it was becoming hard to shoot,” he said. “I quit thinking about it. I didn’t want it to affect the show. I’m not afraid of emotion but I was trying to maintain the same mindset we had for 11 years.”
On the final day, every moment was colored by “this is the last time” sentimentality, as if it were the last day of school.
“You leave the hair and makeup trailer and say, ‘I’m never going back,’ ” O’Neill said. “You walk out the stage door and say, ‘I’m never going back.’
“On the last day, Sofia [Vergara, who plays his wife, Gloria] and I finished a scene in the kitchen and had to walk to the [set of the] Dunphy house and I heard her yell ‘Ed, Ed, Ed’ and I turned around and she said, ‘That’s the last scene there, we’ll never go back.’ I hugged her, and she started laughing and crying.”
It was shortly afterward that the finality really hit home for O’Neill.
“When we came out of the Dunphy house, we had to walk past the interior set and they were already tearing it down,” he said. “Within a day, all three houses were gone. That’s when you realize it’s over.”
“Modern Family” has won five Emmy Awards for best comedy series, each coming in its first five season.
On the show, O’Neill’s character’s daughter, Claire (played by Julie Bowen) is married to Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), and his son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), is married to Cameron (Eric Stonestreet). Each child has their own house.
O’Neill, 73, grew up on Youngstown’s north side, graduated from Ursuline High School and attended Youngstown State University.
He was a defensive lineman for the YSU football team and also acted at the university’s theater. After his very brief stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers ended with his being cut during training camp, O’Neill did some acting at the Youngstown Playhouse.
Bitten by the acting bug, he moved to New York in 1977 to pursue a career. He hit the big time in 1987 when he landed the lead role as Al Bundy in the Fox sitcom “Married … With Children.” That show also ran for 11 seasons and 262 episodes.
Between the two shows, O’Neill will have appeared as a star in 516 sitcom episodes on network TV once the April 8 finale of “Modern Family” airs.
No actor has appeared in more. O’Neill set the record on May 7, 2019, when he appeared in his 494th sitcom episode, eclipsing the late Lucille Ball, who held the mark for decades.
“I feel fortunate,” O’Neill said. “It’s not that I’m better than Lucille Ball, but I do a lot of work. Most people don’t get to be on prime time for 22 years.”
O’Neill played harried husband and father Al Bundy on “Married,” a raw comedy with a flurry of insult jokes. He was the engine that drove every episode and had the majority of the screen time.
“Modern Family” is a highbrow show that stands in stark contrast to “Married” for its witty dialogue.
It was also a lesser load for O’Neill.
“It was a dream job,” he said. “I am so thankful to have had it. We took some great vacation trips for episodes. We shot an episode in Paris, which was beautiful. And I never had to work long hours because of the show’s structure of three separate families. When they were shooting the other two families, I wasn’t working.”
The “Modern Family” acting style was more natural. “I let everyone revolve around me,” O’Neill said. “Being the patriarch, I could underplay it.”
Another difference was the shooting schedule. The “Modern Family” cast worked 2 ½ days a week. “It kept us fresh,” O’Neill said.
“Married” was shot in front of a live studio audience, with the cast doing two episodes every Friday.
The biggest difference might be in how the two series ended.
There was no hoopla for “Married,” which was canceled without notice between seasons 11 and 12. Cast members were individually notified off the set.
By contrast, “Modern Family” was able to do a thorough job of saying goodbye because it was announced last year that the 11th season would be the final one.
“It was a victory lap that let us savor the whole thing and have that countdown,” O’Neill said. “We got to go out on our own terms, and we didn’t have that with ‘Married.’”
The series finale of “Modern Family” will be a two-part affair that will air at 9 p.m. April 1 and 8. O’Neill is contractually prohibited from discussing the plot, but said he was pleased with it.
A few episodes that already aired this season began the process of tying up loose ends, including one Jan. 15 in which Phil Dunphy’s madcap father, a recurring character played by Fred Willard, dies.
“Modern Family” has been in syndication for at least a half-dozen years. The mockumentary-style ensemble show, set in suburban Los Angeles, is the brainchild of producers Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan. Always critically acclaimed, its cast members won an additional six Emmy Awards for supporting actor roles.
After the finale airs, O’Neill says that will likely be the end of it. “I haven’t heard a word about a spinoff series and I would be surprised if there was one,” he said.
Three of the cast members have already moved on to new projects. Julie Bowen has been tapped to star in the coming CBS sitcom “Raised by Wolves.”
Jesse Tyler Ferguson stars in the Broadway drama “Take Me Out,” which was set to begin performances April 2 before theaters went dark as a result of the novel coronavirus.
Sofia Vergara will join NBCs “America’s Got Talent” as a judge this summer.
And show creator Levitan will create and develop shows for 20th Century Fox Television under a deal he signed in 2019.
As for O’Neill, he’s going to take a break. “I want time off and I’ve got to have it to regroup and get my energy back,” he said. “I’m not a kid. I’m 73.”
Shaking off the Jay Pritchett character he played for 11 years will be the easy part. “Getting him out of my head won’t be a problem. It never is for me. I’m just enjoying not having to learn a script, enjoying the sense of finality and accomplishment. I’m proud of having done this show.”
O’Neill said he turned down an offer for a movie in which he would play the father of a chef played by Vince Vaughn.
He will next be seen in the film “The Last Shift,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to mostly good reviews. A distribution deal has not yet been reached.
Pictured: Ed O’Neill holds Stella, his pet dog on “Modern Family,” which ends its 11-year run April 8. (Photo courtesy of ABC)