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As the highest award conferred in television, the Emmy is a prize few actors get to savor — and many only get to stand in line for. Stacks of cash get tossed around every year to promote hopeful actors and shows, most of which have just the smallest chance of capturing voters’ attention. But conferring a value on the Emmy — beyond having something to fill the space on the mantel — has usually been elusive. Respect? Certainly. More work? Possibly. Increased recognition for one’s show? Perhaps. None of which is quantifiable, but in Hollywood — where any advantage could be the key to lifelong career security — an actor will take whatever comes along.
The Gersh Agency’s Bob Gersh suggests that, unlike an Oscar, an Emmy win confers a lifetime of respect on an actor. “Once you become Emmy-caliber, you stay Emmy-caliber for a long time,” he says. “With the Oscars, you often get only one shot with one movie, while it seems like with the Emmys, once you establish yourself in that award-winning group, you stay there for years to come.”
One of the first and possibly greatest beneficiaries of an acting Emmy — or even just a nomination — can be the actor’s TV show. Although FX Network’s “The Shield” has faded from Emmy’s golden table, star Michael Chiklis (the outstanding lead drama actor victor in 2002) says his win gave the show a respectability it had not previously had. Christopher Meloni received his first Emmy nomination last year, for NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” a show he’d starred in for seven years without any recognition.
“A lot of people had to point out to me that it’s rare for someone to be nominated on a show seven years down the road,” Meloni says. “So that’s nice.”
As for a career boost from his Emmy nom, Meloni says, “I haven’t seen anything concrete.” But he’s quick to add, “This is a publicity-driven business, and any publicity helps behind the scenes.”
But, he says, had that nomination come a few years earlier, when he also was toiling on the critically respected, Emmy-deprived HBO series “Oz,” things might have been different: “Just from a business standpoint, HBO could’ve thrown more money at us.”
Gersh agrees. “The Oscar is more significant, but clearly in terms of television, the Emmy is far and away the most prestigious award. It can only be a plus.” He points to how Kyra Sedgwick’s Emmy nomination last year for TNT’s “The Closer” “really helped cement the show and her performance on it.”
Chiklis’ win was a stunning upset victory, both for an under-the-radar show and for the actor, whose career up to that point had been dominated by two controversial biopic performances — as John Belushi in 1989’s “Wired” and as Curly Howard in the 2000 telepic “The Three Stooges” — and by five years as the lead in the early 1990s crime series “The Commish.” Looking back, Chiklis says, “I was incredibly fortunate to be counted in that elite company at the Emmys, especially given my whole life prior to that in the industry.”
Chiklis also asserts that his years of struggle in the business had a similar impact on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ acceptance of his “Shield” role. “I think that the absolute antithetical nature of the role helped me in a big way,” he says. “This guy is the anti-‘Commish.’ An utterly different human being. So, my prior work helped me break through. I wasn’t just another first-timer.”
Nevertheless, “Shield” has not directly benefited from Chiklis’ success. After six seasons, it has only one Emmy — his — and even the nominations have slowed to a trickle, despite persistent critical acclaim. Worries Chiklis, “The mentality sometimes is, ‘Oh, OK, they got theirs. What’s new?’ I can’t help but feel like there’ve been some glaring omissions, especially when it comes to the people around me.”
Then there’s the story of Marlo Thomas, nominated four times as outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for the 1970s sitcom “That Girl” — with no wins. She finally won her first Emmy as a producer, for the 1974 children’s TV special “Free to Be … You & Me,” then earned her sole acting Emmy in 1986 for the telepic “Nobody’s Child.”
Thomas says that the nominations and her producing win might have had something to do with the success of “Child.” “When you win,” she says, “people expect a lot of you and maybe recognize that they need to look at your work a little harder.”
Actors who have won multiple Emmys have an understandably different take on what winning means. Barbara Bain was a veteran bit player and high-fashion model when she took on the role of secret agent Cinnamon Carter on “Mission: Impossible.” Yet during her three seasons on the show, from 1966-69, Bain won the lead drama series actress Emmy three consecutive years — a record for the time.
Bain recalls that the first year she won, the incumbent winner, “The Big Valley’s” Barbara Stanwyck, was her chief competition. “I was absolutely sure, because she was so beloved in Hollywood and so well-known, that there was no contest. Not even a discussion. And, in fact, when the presenter said, ‘Barbara …,’ I heard, ‘… Stanwyck,’ and I had to be sort of pushed from my seat.”
By the second and third win, though, Bain felt that she’d earned her success, thanks in large part to the “Mission” writers, who allowed her to showcase the kind of versatility she’d first shown to producer Bruce Geller when they met years earlier at an acting class. “I felt that anyone competing against me for best leading actress didn’t have it so simple,” Bain says. “I had the role.”
Just as Bain’s Emmy wins for “Mission” changed peoples’ perception of her — from elegant set decoration to serious actress — so, too, did Christina Applegate’s win in 2003 for a guest appearance on “Friends.” Applegate’s victory helped secure her place as a full-fledged comedienne, instead of the airhead she’d played for 10 years on “Married … With Children.”
For Applegate, the whole “Friends” experience was a kind of whirlwind. “To just go and have fun for five days with those people on that set and then be honored later at the Emmys was just really good stuff,” she says. Applegate followed up her win with an acclaimed performance the next year opposite Will Ferrell in the hit movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” and then was Emmy-nominated again for a reprise of her “Friends” role — though the second time she didn’t get the award. (She laughs, “The only letdown was that when you don’t win for a guest appearance, then you don’t get to go the actual Emmys, and you don’t get the gift basket.”)
Brad Garrett spent more than a decade grinding it out on the stand-up circuit before landing a plum role in 1996 as Ray Romano’s gloomy older brother on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Then he sat idly by while the CBS show went from zero nominations during its first two years on the air to multiple nominations for nearly everyone involved with the show except him. He finally won the supporting actor in a comedy series award in 2002, the first year he was nominated. Then he proceeded to win twice more over the next three years — including the show’s last year on the air.
Says Garrett: “The first time, I remember rushing down the aisle, past the writers, and I was so happy just to be on the bus. Then when I won the second time, I thought, ‘Well, maybe this wasn’t a terrible mistake.’ The third time, I thought the nomination was just the (Television) Academy’s way of saying, ‘Hey, great nine years.’ But it turned out to be an amazing way to say goodbye.”
Between his Emmy celebrations, Garrett was involved with highly publicized contract negotiations with “Raymond’s” producers. But he doubts that his wins gave him an edge. “I think the Emmy only gives leverage if you don’t win,” he posits. “When you renegotiate, they can say, ‘Well, he didn’t win an Emmy.’ When you do win, they can say, ‘Well, so did the chick from ‘Blossom,’ or whatever. I think the leverage you get is a certain amount of respect and a certain self-gratifying clout. It gives an actor the feeling that they’re hitting the chord, and at the end of the day, that’s probably more important.”
Bain certainly wasn’t able to parlay her three Emmy wins into any kind of immediate gains, either monetarily or career-wise, because, as she puts it, “My career was interrupted by some blood on the floor.” She and Paramount, the studio behind “Mission,” parted ways bitterly due to what she dubs “a royal misunderstanding on all parts,” and Bain found herself under a yearlong injunction that kept her from working, followed by a cloud of bad press. But the show continued to thrive in her absence.
Still, with so many more eligible shows and, subsequently, eligible roles, does the Emmy mean even more than it used to? Bain’s not so sure. “Those reality shows eliminate jobs for actors, so maybe there’s fewer people actually competing — though there’s some very good acting on television.”
Similarly, Applegate notes, “There’s always been a scarcity of really great, funny female roles, whether it be in film or television. Plus, dramas are really dominating. The good comedy roles are getting more scarce, I think.”
So, what does the Emmy ultimately mean, in practical terms, to the winners and to the nominees? Maybe nothing more than what Thomas says: “You always want to win. It’s disappointing when you don’t. But I’d rather be nominated and go to the party than not. There are a lot of people on television, and lots and lots of shows, so to be singled out as one of five is very exciting.”
And in the end, it’s best to plan to be happy to be on the list. When Chiklis and his wife were walking up the red carpet outside the Shrine Auditorium in 2002, they spied Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg talking to Martin Sheen and Aaron Sorkin. “My wife turned to me with a stricken face and went, ‘Are you going to be all right? You know, when you lose,'” he recalls. “And I said, ‘I’m in the top five, honey. We’re invited to the party. Let’s enjoy it.'”
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