‘Married with Children’ Nostalgia Hard to Forget with ‘Modern Family’

Ed O'Neill in Modern Family (ABC)

Ed O'Neill in Modern Family (ABC)

ABC’s ‘Modern Family’ owes at least part of its critical and commercial freshman popularity to the reintroduction of Ed O’Neill — America’s Al Bundy — into the prime-time sitcom TV lineup, which hadn’t happened since 1997. What may be worth looking at again was Hollywood’s frosty initial reception to O’Neill’s iconic claim to fame.

Enjoying the spoils of creating ‘Married with Children’s’ Bundy, O’Neill hadn’t starred on prime-time TV regularly since the one-season ‘Dragnet’ in 2003-04 before ‘Modern Family.’ He barely wanted to go back to work.

“I don’t think [‘Married with Children’] got the same shoulder-to-shoulder kind of support from our peers and the industry that [‘Modern Family’] has gotten so far,” O’Neill said during a panel discussion at a recent PaleyFest event for ‘Modern Family’ in L.A. “It’s kind of nice, and a new experience for me. I never wanted to do another half-hour show. Because 11 years is a long time to a half-hour comedy. I thought, might as well do it again. When I met with [creator] Steve [Levitan] and we talked about the concept, I thought, ‘Oh geez, it’s such a great idea.’ I got a copy of the [‘Modern Family’] script and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve gotta go back to work.’ I didn’t even want to.””

Of his reluctance to do TV again, O’Neill added, “I am 63. In my whole life, I don’t know what it is to be 63. [But] to be the husband of the beautiful Sofia Vergara has its perks.”

Vergara added, “We have a lot of chemistry. We work in the same way — no drama, nothing. We want to get out of there.”

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O’Neill is part of the ‘Modern Family’ ensemble as patriarch Jay Pritchett, stealing scenes, but not in the indelible way of shoe salesman Al Bundy. What’s interesting is that ‘Modern Family’ extends the TV legacy that ‘Married with Children’ created: the modern, fractured family with multiple interests. ‘Married’ defined a TV generation that personified the break-up of the nuclear family unit — ‘Modern Family’  is that result a generation later.

‘Married with Children,’ which started in 1987, ran 262 episodes through 1997, and was Fox’s first network show — and still is the longest running.

The show didn’t win many awards. O’Neill was nominated for a Golden Globe twice. Costar Katey Segal was nominated for Peggy Bundy four times. The series was nominated for best comedy series once.

The Emmy nominations ‘Married with Children’ scraped up were in editing, lighting and costumes. The industry’s lack of support may have been due to some controversy surrounding the show’s topical edginess. The show received a TV Land “Innovator” Award in 2009.

Nowadays, O’Neill downplays nostalgic attention around ‘Married,’ not overshadowing his new show.

Asked about the show’s legacy in January, 13 years after its finale, O’Neill told TV Squad, “I really don’t know. I mean, I don’t know where it’s going to land in the scheme of things as they look back on it. I think it’s going to be, certainly it was a bit of a ground-breaker. How good or how… I don’t know. I mean, I think that it was funny, and that goes a long way. And that’s all I know. I don’t know. You know, it’s hard to judge your own kind of thing anyway.”

‘Modern Family’ costar Jesse Tyler Ferguson tells Fancast of O’Neill, “It’s kind of amazing. He’s such a great actor, and I don’t think a lot of people really — listen, Al Bundy was an amazing, iconic character — but he has such deeper talents than that character allowed him to show. I think people are really surprised by his sensitivity and depth of character. This is just something people have never seen him do. Everyone loves a comeback kid. This is certainly his year.”

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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