“This is the best job I’ve ever had. I would’ve done it for free. Don’t tell my agent,” Ed O’Neill used to say to Christopher Lloyd, the co-creator of Modern Family, the long-running sitcom upon which O’Neill played Jay Pritchett. The role, which lasted for 11 seasons, was a cap on the illustrious career of O’Neill, previously best known for playing Al Bundy in another sitcom that ran for 11 years, Fox’s Married … with Children. The role, however, only landed in O’Neill’s lap because another actor known for a long-running sitcom blew his chance.
As the story is told in Marc Freeman’s book, Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television’s Groundbreaking Sitcoms, the original offer for the 60-year-old character went out to Craig T. Nelson, the star of the ’90s sitcom Coach. Nelson wasn’t exactly their first choice. When they were doing their casting, they also met with O’Neill, but he had insisted that he didn’t want to do another sitcom. After they sent him the script, anyway, O’Neill had a change of heart after reading it and asked his agent to say yes to the role.
Unfortunately, at the time, there was nothing to say “yes” to. Despite getting on well with Modern Family’s creators, Steve Levitan and Lloyd, O’Neill had not actually been offered the role. In fact, the creators were so torn between O’Neill and Nelson that the casting director eventually flipped a coin and Nelson was offered the role. “Craig T. liked and seemed to understand the character,” Lloyd told Freeman.
However, during negotiations with Craig T. Nelson, he “countered rather aggressively,” according to Levitan.
“He wanted star money, but it wasn’t a star show. It was an ensemble show,” the show’s casting director, Jeff Greenberg added. “I understand from his agent that he regretted his decision. I’m not surprised.”
It wasn’t just the money, however, according to co-creator Steve Levitan. “We had started to hear some rumblings that maybe he was a little bit difficult on set. And then he made this quote bashing people on food stamps and welfare for taking from the government, and it scared us, frankly. There was a lack of self-awareness and compassion that worried us. Meanwhile, all we kept hearing was that Ed O’Neill was the nicest person on the planet, so we pulled the offer and gave it to Ed.”
And that’s how Craig T. Nelson blew his chance to play Jay Pritchett, a well-paid gig on a well-respected, long-running sitcom that — based on the rest of Freeman’s book — sounded like one of the cushiest jobs in the industry. According to Lloyd, however, it wasn’t entirely Nelson’s negatives that led to O’Neill’s casting. “What we had was a first-hand indication that Ed was going to be a blast to work with,” and that proved to be true.