It doesn’t take long to fall in love with Eric Stonestreet.
Just watch him fill up the TV screen with his affable TV persona Cameron on ABC’s runaway hit, “Modern Family,” and you’re hooked. Stonestreet is at once hilarious, soft-spoken and teddy-bear-squeezable. His character, one half of a gay couple who has adopted a baby girl from Vietnam, allows glimpses of some of the inevitable vulnerability that has trailed Stonestreet on his non-meteoric rise to the top.
But more on that later.
Stonestreet, a native of Kansas City, Kan.–he grew up in the 1970s in Piper, a then-unincorporated town in Wyandotte County–raised pigs and cattle for 4-H projects; cut thistle in the pasture on his family’s five acres and adjoining land; joked around with his best childhood friend, Jeff Johns; hung out and did community service work with his big brother and sister Paul and Mauria; and took lots of advice from his folks, Jamey and Vince.
His grandmother owned 80 acres that are now part of the Kansas Speedway and The Legends mega-complex.
“My family kept some of the logs when they sold the property and milled them into planks that became fireplace mantels, a bar and a long shelf,” says Stonestreet.
Vince owned a salvage company called L&V in Leavenworth for 35 years (think Big Lots) and Jamey was a teacher’s assistant. Stonestreet says he learned his strong work ethic from his parents and grandmother and also the notion that he could reach for the stars.
“We had every opportunity and were constantly told there was nothing we couldn’t do,” he says.
Stonestreet, who grew up in a supportive environment punctuated by a stable foundation of family values, has fond memories of growing up in then-rural KCK and venturing into the city to watch the KC Royals play at Kauffman Stadium.
“I loved watching Al Hrabosky, known as ‘The Mad Hungarian,’ throw his blazing fastball and [outfielder] Willie Wilson,” reminisces Stonestreet, adding that the sound of the organ on game day and the backdrop of the ballpark’s iconic fountains and crown against I-70 were magical.
As Stonestreet prepared to leave home and enter Kansas State University, his parents sent him packing with perhaps the most formative and inspirational words of his young life.
“They told me to find something interesting and not worry about what I was going to be in this world,” recalls Stonestreet. “It was comfortable advice–they were basically telling me it would happen how it was supposed to.”
Stonestreet vividly remembers some sage words from his Piper High School counselor, Al Ogden, which echoed his parents’ sentiments.
“He said, ‘You start figuring stuff out at 30 years old,'” says Stonestreet. “And that you learn from life, not just the classroom. Al told me to go into life and my life’s work with an open mind and open heart.”
During his tenure as a student at Kansas State University, Stonestreet was dared by a friend to audition for a play. His buddy saw the distraction as a way to shake a funk that had descended on Stonestreet following the breakup with his high school sweetheart.
Stonestreet heeded his pal’s encouragement and landed a bit part in a K-State production of “Prelude to a Kiss,” a 1988 play written by Craig Lucas that spins the tale of a newly married couple whose future is unwittingly altered by a quick kiss proffered from an elderly man to the young bride. Stonestreet enjoyed the experience–
especially the theatre-type people he met.
Stonestreet graduated from K-State in 1995 armed with a degree in sociology (with an emphasis in criminal justice) and admits he grew up thinking about several different career paths–just like any kid does–including a clown, a Marine, a disc jockey or perhaps something at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth.
“I wanted to be a prison administrator and work with convicts,” says Stonestreet.
On the Road
With his parents’ instructive words ringing in his ears, Stonestreet moved from Manhattan to Chicago where he studied at the legendary Second City, the so-called capital of improvisation and sketch comedy, and appeared in several plays. In 1998 the burgeoning actor made the trek that thousands have made before him: he trundled out to Los Angeles, the West Coast’s headquarters for artists struggling to make a living at their collective passions of acting, directing and writing.
Stonestreet took the proverbial winding yellow brick road to celebrity status, but he didn’t have to take the stereotypical waiter’s jobs to make ends meet.
“Commercial work paid my bills,” says Stonestreet. “I was in the national IBM campaign for nearly three years as Phil, filmed a series of spots for the NCAA and promoted various other products.”
He even appeared in a 2001 Super Bowl ad hawking Pepsi with fellow Kansan Bob Dole.
“The job of an actor is to audition for tons of things,” says Stonestreet. “You just hope that someday you get something that actually sticks.”
But Stonestreet was garnering attention from casting agents, landing guest spots on popular TV shows such as “Dharma & Greg”–his sitcom debut–and “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Party of Five,” “Spin City”
and “ER.” His most notable early character was as the recurring Ronnie Litre, a documents technician fascinated by the technology he uses on the original “CSI” franchise on CBS.
In “Things started falling into place,” says Stonestreet. “I was auditioning a lot and getting parts. Television audiences started to get to know me in the role I played on ‘CSI.'”
The down-home boy from Kansas was getting props on the big screen, too, adding Sheldon, the hotel desk clerk, in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 comedy-drama “Almost Famous” starring Kate Hudson and Billy Crudup to his blossoming résumé. The movie went on to receive four Oscar nominations and won two Golden Globes.
“One of my lines [in the movie], ‘She freaked me out,’ got a big laugh,” says Stonestreet. “People remembered it and more importantly, it gave my agent and manager leverage to get me additional parts.”
The Big Break
Fast forward to the moment that could be called pivotal in the actor’s professional life. It was 2008 and a decade since Stonestreet had started paying rent–and dues–in the hard-knocks town of Hollywood. His manager called him with an audition for a pilot called “Modern Family.”
The day he heard he received the part of Cameron–a flamboyant, sensitive
and wickedly funny gay man living in a
committed relationship with partner Mitchell
(played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson)–
Stonestreet remembers being pretty emotionally even-keeled.
“You never think you’re going to get the part and then things start to align themselves,” he says. “I probably was more excited the day ‘Modern Family’ was picked up by ABC as a series for 13 episodes… that’s a huge hurdle for any show. I had an instinctive feeling that the concept was good and the cast was excellent.”
Cameron is a character simultaneously transparent and deep, a personality modeled somewhat after the people Stonestreet grew up with in Kansas–and one with which he has some affinity.
“He’s passionate, a people pleaser, celebrates life and enjoys making those around him feel good,” explains Stonestreet of his prime time alter ego. “Doting and emotional–Cameron is definitely a reflection of some of my traits.”
Critics and viewing audiences almost instantaneously responded to Stonestreet’s brilliant, scene-stealing interpretation of Cameron and his relationship with Mitchell.
Stonestreet has confirmed in interviews that Cameron is somewhat of an impersonation of his mom, Jamey (who had a non-speaking extra part in the “Fizbo” episode), noting that she’s emotional, passionate and a real person.
“And Cameron and Mitchell are responsible parents,” says Stonestreet. “I had great role models as a young kid.”
Stonestreet, who was raised in an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance of people regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity or lifestyle, hopes that Cameron helps underscore the idea that humans are more the same than they are different.
“Me playing a gay man on national television wasn’t problematic for my family and friends,” emphasizes Stonestreet. “Now, the fact that I’ve killed three people in various TV roles struck them more than the sexual orientation of my character.”
Remember that vulnerability?
“I’m generally a happy guy, and Cameron is too,” says Stonestreet. “But there are days you have to fight to be an optimistic person in this business and in life. I am blessed and fortunate–just like Cameron–to be surrounded by good people.”
Stonestreet says he has always had a modest, healthy and unwavering belief in his own talent.
“In this acting business, you can’t be unsure of yourself,” he says. “People respond to a positive attitude.”
Livin’ the Dream
Stonestreet is adamant about the place he’s in right now. He’s elated to be experiencing success in what is a grueling industry and says growing up in the Midwest and learning important lessons like the Golden Rule have impacted his patience, persistence and gratitude.
“I have a sense of responsibility and accountability, and I owe that in large part to my parents and also the animals that relied on me,” he says, referring to the pigs and cows he and his siblings cared for and fed.
Stonestreet says “Modern Family” has allowed him to live his dream.
“I thought it might take 15 or 20 years to land something like this,” he says. “Show business doesn’t reward hard work like other professions.”
Stonestreet has other dreams in his back pocket, including film and Broadway. More than anything
he wants his celebrity to be a vehicle to draw
attention to and raise funds for different causes.
“I was honored to speak recently at the Human Rights Campaign gala in Cleveland and am an
ambassador with the national Stand Up to Cancer organization,” says Stonestreet. “My mom beat the disease and my grandma beat it multiple times.”
Off-camera Stonestreet leads the type of down-to-earth life you almost expect from the unassuming rising star. He shuttles between the West Coast and New York where his girlfriend, who is a member of the cast of the runaway Broadway hit, “Rock of Ages” lives; hangs out with his beloved dog, Coleman Hawkins; and logs in some couch time in front of the big screen, watching shows he TiVos such as “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Justified” and “Breaking Bad.” He’s an uncle to two nieces and a nephew who live in Olathe; keeps in touch with brother Paul, in Olathe and sister Mauria, outside Chicago and friends such as Jeff Johns; and visits home at least a couple of times a year.
“It’s easy to get jaded living in a big city,” says Stonestreet. “Going home [to Kansas City] is a nice change of pace. And I love the people. They’re earnest.”
We say it takes one to know one, Eric Stonestreet.
words: Kimberly Winter Stern
And now, a word from …
Eric’s older brother, Paul, perhaps best summarizes the family’s reaction to watching him on TV every week.
“Seeing him do funny things isn’t new to us,” explains Paul. “Eric was always telling jokes, playing pranks and being a fun guy. He performed for all of us. And we’ve seen him appear on TV for 13 years.”
Paul, his wife Donna, and children Morgan, Garrett and Brooke all rush home on Wednesday evenings from religious classes and gather in front of the TV precisely at 7:56 p.m. to watch “Modern Family.” They see Eric the actor, but also get glimpses of Eric the brother, brother-in-law and uncle.
“In the ‘My Funky Valentine’ episode, for instance, there was a reference to Don Jolly, a neighbor of ours when we were kids,” says Paul.
During Paul’s junior year at K-State, Eric and two of his friends visited him at his Manhattan apartment. According to Paul, there was a party later that evening and at one point, Paul realized that the crush of guests was gone. He found them gathered in a roommate’s bedroom, mesmerized by a one-man show.
“I asked what was going on and someone said, ‘There’s a chubby kid sitting on the bed with a cigar, telling jokes,'” remembers Paul. “I knew immediately who it was. Eric looked at me, I looked at him and he pleaded with me not to tell Mom and Dad.”
“We all knew he had something special a long time ago,” laughs Paul, who owns Stoney’s Creative Landscape and Design in Olathe.
Best childhood friend Jeff Johns, an Olathe resident, says he and Eric were inseparable from kindergarten on.
“I would go over and help him with chores, like lugging 50-pound sacks of pig feed,” says Jeff, a corporate lawyer who has lived in Chicago and Washington, D.C. and is doing a stint as a stay-at-home dad. “We both grew up in a family-oriented, solid environment.”
Jeff tagged along with Eric on trips to US Toy and magic shops to outfit his clown character, Fizbo, which started out as a 4-H project. “Modern Family” wrote Fizbo into one of the shows and Eric made friends and family laugh until they cried, remembering Eric’s antics in the clown costume.
Jeff, who stays connected to his boyhood pal via cell phone and text, says Eric brings great warmth to Cameron’s character.
“Cameron’s personality isn’t a big stretch from Eric’s,” he says.