Rob Riggle Gil Thorp

Backers of decades-old comic strip about high-school coach hope for publicity from potential spinoff

If and when Gil Thorpe, the antagonistic pickle-dispensing realtor from “Modern Family,” gets a show of his own, there’s another character who might like to have a chat. His name? Gil Thorp.

Gil Thorpe has been around for just four or so TV seasons. He’s the grating nemesis of “Family’s” uber-friendly Phil Dunphy (and, until recently, referred to only by name). Gil Thorp, on the other hand, has been coaching various sports for a high school in what is presumably Milford, Conn., since 1958. Gil Thorpe has made lustful remarks about Phil’s wife, Claire. Gil Thorp’s most controversial moment came when he talked a 15-year-old teen out of getting an abortion.

The biggest difference between the two men: Gil Thorpe appears occasionally on an ABC program that reaches approximately 10 million to 12 million viewers, while Gil Thorp appears in a venerable comic strip bearing his name that runs in just around 60 newspapers, down from “well over 100” in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Neal Rubin, the strip’s writer.

Now the people behind “Gil Thorp” hold out hope that a potential “Modern Family” spinoff starring comic actor Rob Riggle as Gil Thorpe will offer a windfall for the comic-strip coach.

“Maybe if there was a spin-off centered entirely on that character, perhaps it could drum up a little bit of interest,” said Patrick Fitzmaurice, an editor at Tribune Media Services who supervises the “Gil Thorp” comic.

Both Fitzmaurcie and Rubin think the name similarity is more than mere happenstance. Perhaps one of the “Modern Family” writers remembers the strip fondly and is paying homage? “It could be coincidence,” said Rubin. “I’d rather think that someone on the show is a ‘Gil Thorp’ fan, maybe back from childhood.” The writer, who also pens a column for the Detroit News, went so far as to call a publicist at ABC, which runs the comedy, to determine if someone at the show was an aficionado of the strip. He said he never got an answer.

Speaking through a representative of the studio that produces “Modern Family,” 20th Century Fox Television, exec producer Steven Levitan said the similarity in the characters’names is a “complete coincidence.” The spokesman, Chris Alexander, declined to confirm reports that a spin-off possibly featuring the Gil Thorpe character is currently under consideration by ABC and Fox.

In a different era, Coach Gil Thorp might have enjoyed the upper hand over the sitcom realtor. Funnies-page characters like Charlie Brown, Blondie and Beetle Bailey were touchstones of popular culture. In today’s age, however, their influence has waned: Newspaper circulation has tumbled and advertisers have moved dollars to other media that are drawing more consumer eyeballs. Indeed, earlier this week, “Stars & Stripes,” the newspaper of the U.S. military, said it was giving “Beetle Bailey,” the long-running comic strip about Army life, an honorable discharge from its pages during the week, part of a move to trim costs as audiences migrate elsewhere.

“Gil Thorp” was created by Jack Berrill, who set up his coach as an adviser to dozens of students at Milford High School. Over the decades, Coach Thorp has offered counsel on any number of issues ranging from teen pregnancy to steroid abuse to dating advice.

What he might have to say about reversing the decline of the newspapers that have given him a home is tough to determine. But his backers think a “Modern Family” spinoff boasting a character with the same name can do nothing but help the high-school sportsman. “There are a wide number of people who have never heard of the strip, but for anyone who has read it or seen it in their paper or is even mildly familiar with it, the notoriety factor will be high,” said Rubin.

Even if the TV character’s name is coincidental, Rubin has tried to pay back the publicity favor: A recent storyline nodded to a retired professional wrestler who spends a lot of his time sitting around watching “Modern Family.”

“I didn’t hear back,” Rubin said, “ but I figured it was the least I could do.”

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