Shy guy plays anything but

Growing up, Eric Stonestreet pictured his future behind bars, 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 — the red nose, the big shoes.

What would it be, warden or entertainer?

Stonestreet, 38, chose laughs, and today he's one of the breakout stars of the TV season as lovable, larger-than-life Cameron on ABC's Modern Family.

"I got fascinated by clowning as a kid," the Kansas City, Kan., native 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."

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."

Maybe that was for the best, Stonestreet says now. Being part of a hit comedy series has given him opportunities he never imagined.

Still he says, "I'm just an ordinary guy from the Midwest."

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

"Another dream come true," he says.