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'Modern Family' star Stonestreet is a clown - no, really

Gail Pennington

Growing up in Kansas City, Eric Stonestreet pictured his future in the pen, not as a convict but as a prison administrator.

But he also had a streak of clown in him. That's clown as in circus — as in red nose and big shoes.

What would it be, warden or entertainer?

Stonestreet chose laughs, and today he's one of the breakout stars of the TV season as lovable Cameron on ABC's "Modern Family."

"I got fascinated by clowning as a kid," he says. "And I actually worked as a clown, doing birthday parties. I was written up in the Kansas City paper when I was in grade school."

But at Kansas State University, he majored in sociology, until a friend dared him to audition for a play ("Prelude to a Kiss") and he landed the role.

"People told me I was good, and I believed them," Stonestreet says. "I started thinking I could actually be a performer."

So he ran away to join the circus — on paper.

"I applied to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clown college," he said. "They didn't take me."

But based on that first small stage role in college, he'd fallen in love with performing, especially improv comedy.

"I'm shy in some ways," Stonestreet says. "But improv is a great place to fall on your face, because the group is there to support you."

After working and studying in Chicago with the improv groups IO Chicago and Second City, Stonestreet moved to Los Angeles a decade ago, continuing to work in comedy and commercials. TV roles followed, including a 15-episode run on "CSI" in Seasons 1-5 as technician Ronnie Litre. He broke into movies playing a desk clerk in "Almost Famous."

But pilot season after pilot season, either the right role didn't come along, or he didn't get cast. So he was cautious when a casting director called him for "Modern Family," a comedy from Steve Levitan ("Just Shoot Me") and Christopher Lloyd ("Frasier").

Levitan and Lloyd had written a show about a nuclear family (mom, dad and kids), an older man with a young wife and stepson, and a gay couple with an adopted infant.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson ("The Class") had already been cast as Mitchell, one half of the gay couple. Stonestreet was up for Cameron, Mitchell's partner. Ferguson is gay in real life. Stonestreet is not.

"But I had no reservations about playing a gay guy," he says.

Stonestreet says his and Ferguson's personalities "are opposite from our characters."

"Jesse plays the buttoned-up, conservative one, and he's actually very loose and spontaneous. People are surprised when they meet me that I seem quiet and serious, and Cameron is so over the top and flamboyant."

After all, Stonestreet plays a character who introduced his new daughter to family in an homage to "The Lion King"; who had a mural of her two fathers, as angels, painted on her bedroom wall; and who dressed in full-on clown regalia for a nephew's birthday party.

Yes: a clown. In a recent episode, viewers learned that Cameron is a classically trained clown named Fizbo and takes clowning very, very seriously.

Stonestreet happily describes taking his childhood love of clowning into his "dream job" on "Modern Family" as coming full circle.

"Another dream come true," he says.