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Longform categories haven for experienced actors

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Take a microscope to the parade of potential candidates for this year's lead actor and actress categories in miniseries or movies, and there is at least one striking similarity. Whether it's TNT's "Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King," co-starring William H. Macy; HBO's "Longford," starring Jim Broadbent; ABC's "The Path to 9/11," starring Harvey Keitel; or Lifetime's "The Mermaid Chair," starring Kim Basinger, one thing is clear -- aside from their considerable Hollywood film chops, these are actors of a certain age. Over 50, that is.

It might have taken a few decades for the pattern to emerge, but Emmy's miniseries and movie categories have slowly become the domain of older male and female actors, lead and supporting. This could be Hollywood's only example of reverse ageism -- meaning that in this one case, age matters in a good way.

"I think it's a chicken-and-egg thing," says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre," which will submit "Prime Suspect: The Final Act," starring Helen Mirren, for this year's awards. "The miniseries format lends itself to having a main character who is a person with life experience. The central role has depth, carries the story on its shoulders and has a complexity that requires a certain experience and emotional maturity. These roles are very meaty and colorful, and these actors act their socks off. These are the parts that often end up with the nominations."

"I think it's starting to happen more because there are more baby boomers living," suggests S. Epatha Merkerson, 54, who referred to Hollywood's ageism in her 2005 Emmy acceptance speech for HBO's "Lackawanna Blues." "The stories have to reflect us, so we have to be involved in more than just a supporting way."

"Nightmares and Dreamscapes" co-star Marsha Mason, 65, agrees: "You wind up playing your age, and I wonder if it is because the TV audience is much closer to my age."

Still, it's not just that the voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences skew toward older actors -- it's that in the last few years the slots have been overwhelmingly filled by seasoned veterans in the second half-century of their lives. The number of younger people nominated in the longform categories can be tallied on one hand (including Halle Berry, Thora Birch, Anne Heche, Kelly Macdonald and Jonathan Rhys Meyers), while a calculator would be needed to count the nominated over-50 crowd. The median age of last year's lead acting nominees was 56, the youngest being Gillian Anderson at 38. And the category has been particularly favorable to older female actresses, often considered Hollywood's most disposed-of resource.

This year should be no different, with insiders pointing to the miniseries and specials category as a kind of perfect storm for seasoned veterans. The audience for longform programming skews older, so when networks set out to make one of their rare entries into the field, they look for stories that will make an impact, and they are able to find lots of willing talent in the over-40 set who end up with a lot of goodwill from their peers when it comes time for voting.

As for the chicken-and-the-egg aspect, at this point it has become difficult to determine what's propelling the engine: Longform TV projects need older, seasoned actors, but older, seasoned actors also need the exposure that other forms of television don't necessarily provide to them. Says Mason, "Longform movies have enabled me to keep my name out there while I'm waiting for another part."

That's also true for Mercedes Ruehl, 58, who is part of Lifetime's Emmy push for her role in "A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story." "At this point in my career, I'm not getting offered movies every week," Ruehl says. "An old poet once said to me, 'When the game is scarce, the hunter must trek for it.' These are the realities of maturing for a woman. It's not for the faint of heart, so you do a little sleuthing around."

Call it the Ann-Margret effect. When the Oscar-nominated actress made her first TV movie at age 42 in 1983, "Who Will Love My Children," she caused a flurry of press about older actresses turning to TV to find work -- and got her first Emmy nomination. That might have seemed like a fluke, but she's been nominated for four more since and continues to be available for TV movies. In the intervening years, feature-film legends such as Ellen Burstyn, Jill Clayburgh, Jessica Lange, Angela Lansbury, Lynn Redgrave, Lee Remick and Jessica Tandy have followed her to the small screen.

Longform also is a boon to those who maintain regular TV gigs yet languish unnoticed. Merkerson has had a TV spot for more than 15 years as a supporting player on NBC's "Law & Order," but she hadn't had a chance to star in a big project until HBO hired her.

"Certainly, I've been consistent in working," she says. "But if there are not that many roles for women over 50 in general, then it's much smaller for African-American women. I've been sticking to it long enough for somebody to see (that I) can handle it. I have a lot of respect for (HBO Films president) Colin Callender and what he's done. Whatever they attempt, they do with such integrity."

While HBO has had great success at the Emmys over the last few years, Lifetime in particular has been able to capitalize on the available actresses by including two or three marquee projects a year in its extensive slate of original movies. Last year, it garnered nominations for Kathy Bates, 58, in "Ambulance Girl"; Judy Davis, 52, in "A Little Thing Called Murder"; and in 2005 for Debra Winger, 52, in "Dawn Anna." This year Lifetime is pinning its hopes on Basinger and Ruehl, as well as Sarah Chalke (a mere 30) for "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy."

"It all starts with the material -- that's how you get these wonderful actresses who are hungry for roles," says Libby Beers, Lifetime vp original programming. "It starts with looking for the best story that will constitute an event. It's very important to have a big star. For Kim Basinger to do a movie for us, like 'The Mermaid Chair' -- it elevates it to an event."

But for all of the enthusiasm in the category, Macy, who has been nominated four times in the longform categories and won twice (he took home the lead actor and writing trophies, the latter of which he shared with Steven Schachter, for 2002's "Door to Door"), suggests it's in a decline. (A recent project of his, "The Deal," was originally slated as a Showtime movie; budget cuts axed the production, which he is now producing as an indie with co-writer and director Schachter.)

"For a while there, movies of the week were doing the bravest work," he says. "Until about two years ago, it was a great market. And for an actor like myself, it was a great opportunity to play roles that nobody else would let me play, to write scripts that nobody else would produce and to get a sizable budget to make something that would be seen by 10 or even 14 million people, as opposed to an indie film that might been seen by 3 million."

No matter the size of the audience, however, for most voters it isn't just about giving kudos to actresses who have earned their due; Ruehl warns she votes for reasons unrelated to age: "That would be human nature, but when I vote, I vote for performance."