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The Long Goodbye
As Modern Family’s final season cycles down toward its inevitable conclusion, I detect a certain nostalgia and melancholy pervading stage 5 on the 20th Century Fox Studios lot. In a few months, the cast will exit stage left for the very last time. The crew they’ve come to love for the past eleven years will swoop in and strike the sets. The Michelangelo mural with Mitch and Cam in place of God and Adam will get painted over. The zebra chairs and leather sofa in Gloria and Jay’s household reupholstered or placed into storage. The two-story Dunphy set, a rarity for TV soundstages, broken down and recycled for use in other productions.
You can’t help but feel a certain romanticism in the change of seasons. The loss of fallen leaves soon to be replaced by new growth, a full bloom. For the hundred-plus people that make Modern Family, that doesn’t make letting go any easier, however.
“I’m of the mind-set that I know the end is coming, but I don’t want to think about it, because I get upset,” concedes Sofía Vergara (Gloria Delgado-Pritchett). Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell Pritchett) tries to take it all in. “I want to be very present in each and every moment, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Flashback to ten years ago, August 29, 2010, at the Nokia Theatre in downtown LA: The Television Academy’s Sixty-Second Primetime Emmy Awards. Modern Family, its first time out of the gate, has received six nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series, which it will win that night, then rinse and repeat for the next four years. At that moment, however, cast and crew have no idea what the future holds for them—the accolades; the fans like Steven Spielberg, shout-outs of praise from both presidential candidates in a bitterly contested election season (President Obama and then candidate Mitt Romney); the mobs of followers they encounter in Australia, the appearances on Oprah and Ellen. They just try to take in the evening’s sensory overload of glamour surrounding them.
Who could have ever expected this? Not Ty Burrell (Phil Dunphy), a self-described “guy with his life on his shoulders, carrying all his worldly possessions back to New York after getting crushed by Hollywood.” Not Eric Stonestreet (Cameron “Cam” Tucker), whose longest TV role to date had lasted all of eight days. Not Julie Bowen, expecting to be fired at the table read, before the pilot, after airing, perhaps even today.
In little more than a year, this ensemble cast had skyrocketed from Ed O’Neill and the no-names (sounds like a Motown band, fitting since Ed used to front a rhythm and blues band in Ohio) to industry darlings comparing notes about Leno’s and Letterman’s greenrooms. Tom Hanks suddenly approaches them: Tom goddamned Hanks. He gives the Modern Family contingency the once-over. “Hello, you talented sons of bitches.”
Today, I’m watching those talented sons of bitches film a scene for Emmy-winning writer/director Elaine Ko’s script “The Prescott.” The episode marks the return of Stephen Merchant, reprising his role as bath butler extraordinaire Leslie Higgins. I see that Merchant has had the entire cast sign his script, a personal memento that clearly brings with it some meaning for him.
Ed O’Neill literally moseys past me now. Cameras must be ready to roll; otherwise, O’Neill wouldn’t be there. He doesn’t like idle time. “Ed would like to shoot the rehearsal and go home immediately,” says Bowen. As series cocreator Steve Levitan points out, “An Ed impression on set is him tapping his watch and looking around, like, ‘Why aren’t we done?’” O’Neill wouldn’t disagree with their assessments. He’d double down on it. “He wants to get home to grill some meat,” says Bowen.
When he does have downtime on set, he holds court with anyone interested in a good yarn. Today, I hear anecdotes about David Mamet, Married with Children, Brazilian jujitsu, Kirk Douglas, the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Ohio deejay Booker Bell, the film Shane, his best friend in school, and a few past regrets—all in between a camera reset. O’Neill could entertain a wall. Stonestreet wants to bottle that folksy demeanor. “My idea for Ed, when this is all over, is to do a podcast called Burning It Down with Ed O’Neill, where Ed says, ‘I’m never working in this business again, and now I can tell all the stories about all the people that I’ve worked with,’ because he’s got great frickin’ stories.”
All week, I’ve heard everything labeled as “the last” of something. The last October shoot. The last staff pumpkin-carving contest. The last travel episode, to Paris (Ireland fell through), a fine French adieu courtesy of executive producer Jeff Morton, who handles such logistics. “The Last Thanksgiving” episode, already in the can. “The Last Christmas,” ready for production next week. The last holiday party, in which everyone will wear matching onesies and receive their annual holiday ornament courtesy of Nolan Gould (Luke Dunphy), a tradition he started the first year as a ten-year-old cherub. “It’s cool because each one has a photo of the cast taken that year. You can see the evolution of us.”
Gould, his best buddy in the world, Ariel Winter (Alex Dunphy), who plays his older sister, and Rico Rodriguez, who plays Vergara’s son, Manny Delgado, have grown up with one another before our eyes. I can’t imagine going through my awkward teen years on-camera. Right now, they sit in director’s chairs, a stone’s throw away from the Dunphy den. Meanwhile, onstage, Courtney Cox and David Beckham—guest stars this week—rehearse a scene with Merchant. Originally, someone else had been slated to play Cox’s role, but that actress had pulled out at the last second, causing short-term chaos. “We’d never had anyone just cancel like that on us before, and it was especially frustrating because we’d already jumped through a lot of hoops to accommodate her schedule,” said Ko. Emmy-winning casting director Jeff Greenberg quickly whipped up a list of names and then pulled Courtney Cox out of a hat. Try to see if you could do that yourself. With all the plotlines so closely interconnected, Ko had to spend last weekend rewriting the story.
Cocreator Chris Lloyd comes over to bend it like Beckham, actually to bend Beckham’s ear. “The Prescott” episode belongs to Lloyd. The other cocreator, Levitan, owns the stage next week. For all intents and purposes, they run two separate shows, not that audiences ever notice. Over the course of close to thirty years, their relationship has evolved from peers to friends to partners to personae non gratae. Daddy and Daddy have divorced, but have a shared custody arrangement for their creation.
Their children, however, remain thick as thieves. Like the cast and crew of many long-term shows, they’ll claim to be family. That happens when you end up hanging out on set with coworkers more than you do your own kin. Unlike many casts and crews, however, they really act like one: the good, bad, happy, sad—all of it. “It’s odd. I can’t tell you how many times we say, ‘I love you,’” admits assistant prop master Steve Miller. “You don’t say that at your job. The whole crew is doing that. It’s crazy how much you hear that.”
Sharing such an experience as this breaks down any façade of best behavior. People can be sweet, moody, or act spoiled. They may bark, even bite at times. Emotions can heat up. Things can get tense. But it always passes. “This is literally the only way I can describe it,” says Ferguson. “I’ve known Eric longer than I’ve known my husband. We’re playing a married couple, and it’s a very intimate thing. The only way to have a healthy relationship is to get through conflict together. I think that’s what makes relationships stronger. It’s no different for Julie and me or Ed and me. That’s a testament to how much we care about each other.”
That caring extends from the showrunners down to the vice chancellor of coffee and burritos, as writers’ assistant Matt Plonsker likes to refer to himself. “On most shows, you’re forced to be with one another and become an oddball family,” points out associate producer Andrew Brooks. “On our show, we spend time with each other voluntarily, outside of time on set, which I think is super rare.”
Brooks recently flew to Kansas with Stonestreet to watch Stonestreet’s beloved NFL Kansas City Chiefs play a home game at Arrowhead Stadium. Stonestreet has season tickets to Los Angeles Kings hockey games, located right by the glass, that he gives to crew members. Associate producer Rachael Field has practically been adopted by Bowen and now produces projects with her. Winter takes crew members to escape rooms, her current obsession. Burrell and Gould take a TV father–TV son vacation practically every summer.
Ask cast and crew some of their favorite memories and they won’t point to a particular episode or scene. They’ll call out playing craps together after filming in Vegas; country dancing after a day’s work in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; dressing up to watch Floyd Mayweather take Conor McGregor down on the big screen in a private room at the Hard Rock in Lake Tahoe. They had an entire island to themselves in Australia, to hang out for no other reason than hanging out. “In the nighttime, we would come together for dinners and drinks. It’s super fun to be thrust together in a hotel,” says Vergara. “We all make the effort to do things like that. ‘Let’s all come down and meet at this time.’”
Sometimes, it can be small moments. “We understand we all have the silliest jobs,” says Bowen. She has a running inside joke with on-set dresser Josh Elliott and a few other crew members. When any of them—such as Elliott, for example—has to fluff a pillow on the couch or do some inane task, they’ll mutter near the other, “I went to college.” That’s to point out that, as Bowen puts it, “this is the most bizarre way to spend your time, and it’s really fun and silly.”
Elliott knows Vergara isn’t a morning person. He also knows she loves Hot Tamales, not to mention cake. One morning, he put some Hot Tamales in a bowl. Vergara came in a little cranky, recalls Elliott. “I had the bowl over on Jay’s and Gloria’s counter. I shook it so it made a little bit of noise, like when you shake the Friskies box and your cat comes running. She came over and took some Hot Tamales and gave me a smile like, ‘You know me.’”
Leslie Merlin, a guiding light who makes sure everyone is where they need to be and that everything gets done, had the entire cast tape messages for her proposal video to her wife. “Ed gave me the dad talk,” she shares. “‘Are you sure? How do you know you’re sure? Tell me the reasons why.’ I don’t have a father. He knew that.”
Merlin broke her arm on set once. (Side note: She hurts herself a lot.) Cast and crew chipped in to pay. Get the bucket has become a set catchphrase. “It means anytime we hear Leslie’s stumbled, we get the bucket to raise money for her repairs,” says Burrell.
Back on set, “The Prescott” has a lot of moving parts. As a director, Ko must keep track of all the converging storylines being filmed out of sequence, of course, adding to her challenge. Plus, they filmed earlier in downtown LA at a high-rise luxury apartment building catering to people with enough money to not have to ask about cost. On another stage rests a seventeen-foot-tall monstrosity of a waterslide trucked over in chunks from Texas. Through the wonder of Hollywood, they will shoot most of the slide onstage with a blue screen, which they will marry to a mini slide they built and connected to the luxury apartment’s pool. One day, Vergara slides five feet into the pool; the next, she finds herself at the top of the slide onstage with Merchant. All this complexity will mean twelve- to fourteen-hour days, common with other shows but not here. Because of the fast-paced mockumentary style they use, people often get home around lunchtime, making the show the envy of the industry. Furthermore, each family only shoots for part of the week. Half days, a few days a week? Do the math. Impressive, but not this week. No wonder cast and crew apologize over and over to me for the inconvenience. For them, this schedule must be Armageddon. They keep telling me I picked the wrong week to come. I personally think one man’s apocalypse can be another’s paradise, but I play along for appearances.
I’m watching a family created from a family created to entertain families and general audiences. Although I’ve contributed next to nothing here, they’ve made a point of including me in their adventure. They’ve made me feel like I belong. I think I get the whole life-affirming-experience vibe here. How the show and everyone made it to this point tells a story about persistence, creativity, collaboration, struggle, disappointment, disagreements, and, in the end, triumph and accomplishment. Like all good stories, this one, with reruns that will live on in posterity, starts at the beginning.
Copyright © 2020 by Marc Freeman
Foreword copyright © 2020 by Christopher Lloyd