Growing up near the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, Eric Stonestreet was interested in becoming a prison administrator. His plan was to study sociology with an emphasis in criminal justice as a student at Kansas State University; however, his plans changed when he and his high school sweetheart broke up.
“I was kind of sad and depressed,” Stonestreet said. “My friend Paul, who is still my friend and a K-State grad, dared me to audition for a play in the theater department. I said I would if he would.”
Stonestreet and his Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brother, Paul Busenitz, who had theater experience from high school, auditioned for two plays, “Hamlet” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” Busenitz was cast in “Hamlet,” while Stonestreet landed his first role in “Prelude to a Kiss.”
“That was kind of the beginning of it all,” Stonestreet said. “I enjoyed the process. I loved being around the people in the theater department. It was so fun and I had a good time. It certainly changed the course of my life.”
The two-time Emmy award-winning actor attended Kansas City Kansas Community College on a track and field scholarship before an injury led to his transfer to K-State, where he would follow in the steps of his siblings and other family members.
“I figured I would just go to K-State and join my friends that had gone there from high school — just get back on to what I always figured what I would do,” Stonestreet said.
Stonestreet may have not been sure about his destination, but he knew he was bound for something more than the typical college experience.
“As far as me just sitting in a science class or a statistics class or anything like that, it just never really worked for me and I admire students who are good students,” Stonestreet said. “Looking back at all of it, my mind was elsewhere. I didn’t know it at the time where it was, but it was dreaming of being somewhere else other than sitting in a English class.”
Following his role in “Prelude to a Kiss,” Stonestreet performed in several more productions with K-State Theatre, including leading roles in “Twelfth Night” and “All My Sons.” After he graduated with a degree in sociology, Stonestreet moved to Chicago to study and perform theater and improv. He worked in television commercials and IO (Improv Olympics) Chicago and The Second City, both comedy clubs where he had the opportunity to have Tina Fey as an instructor.
After two years, Stonestreet decided to move to Los Angeles to start working with IO West. Stonestreet landed guest-starring roles on various television shows before landing his lead role on “Modern Family,” work for which he has been nominated for and received Golden Globes, Emmys and Screen Actors Guild awards. His success on television lead him to the big screen with roles in movies such as “Almost Famous, “Identity Thief,” “The Loft” and “The Secret Life of Pets.”
Despite his active acting schedule, Stonestreet still makes time to return to the K-State campus to share his experiences and knowledge with current theater students.
Stonestreet has also taken an interest in the K-State marching band. During one particularly cold football game, Stonestreet noticed the band playing the “Wabash Cannonball” without any jackets.
“He came to one of our games a couple years back and it was a cold, wet game,” Frank Tracz, director of bands, said. “It was around November and it was sleeting, gray and nasty, and we were frozen. We didn’t have overcoats, so he called wanting to know what the deal was. I told him, so he paid an awful a lot of money to pay about 85 percent of the overcoats.”
Tracz describes Stonestreet as a Kansas kid who had not changed his ways or let fame deteriorate what is important to him.
“He is a wonderful young man, and he is paying forward and giving back to the university that gave him so much and he is doing a nice job,” Tracz said.
In November 2015, Stonestreet joined the drumline and participated with the band in the “Wabash Cannonball.”
“They love Eric, no question,” Tracz said. “I do too. He’s a great guy, he is a K-Stater and made it big.”
From finding comfort sitting on the bench between Eisenhower and Anderson Hall, to his role on the eighth season of the multi-award-winning show, “Modern Family,” Stonestreet explored his options within college and successfully found his passion.
“I think more than anything, the fondest memory that I have of Kansas State is the people that I met and that I am still in touch with,” Stonestreet said. “And finding my life’s passion.”