Emmy Watch: Guest Star

Top stars in TV guest spots hoping for an Emmy

They don't do it for the fanfare. And they certainly don't do it for the money. But guest-starring roles are one of the best ways for a non-TV actor to be discovered -- or a TV veteran to be rediscovered -- by a new audience.

A glance at the potential nominees for this year's Emmys in the guest-starring categories (best actor and actress awards are given out for episodic dramas and sitcoms) yields a virtual Who's Who of film and TV stars that reaches all the way back to the 1950s. The stories they helped tell range from medical mysteries to tense FBI sagas, and they're all hoping to burnish their resumes with that one special Emmy award.

While winning an Emmy would please both the show and actor, producers and executives say that creating guest roles for stars from films and TV series of yesteryear is rewarding regardless. "It happens in a lot of ways for a lot of reasons," says Universal Media Studios president Katherine Pope. "It gets everyone excited and it raises their game."

The "Law & Order" franchise, particularly "Special Victims Unit," has long been a haven for meaty roles for guest stars, particularly women. This past year, among others, Rhea Perlman and Erika Christensen created characters there, along with Sean Astin and Robin Williams.

"Most of the best writing is on television," says Perlman, who played a defense attorney on "SVU." "I like jobs that are well-written on shows that I like with good actors."

Perlman has four Emmy statuettes already, and says another for guesting would be a bonus. "It's nice to get awards," she says. "It makes you feel good, extra pats on the back. It brings notoriety to the show."

Meanwhile, Astin appeared on the original "Law & Order" as a fast-talking minister involved in murder. "They had written this part," he explains. "I think they must have been mulling around that (2006) documentary 'Jesus Camp.' I wanted to wrestle dramatically with those ideas. What's the point of being an actor if you're not going to take risks?"

Peter Riegert, who has made regular appearances on the "L&O" franchise, took a guest slot on FX's "Damages" opposite Glenn Close. It was a short-term gig, but Riegert says it was invigorating to work with stars like Zeljko Ivanek and Ted Danson.

"The scripts were good, but I liked the people I was working with, and that made it pretty easy to say yes," Riegert says.

"Damages" also found a place for Peter Facinelli, who plays an associate of Close's. He says the only reason he took the role was to work opposite Close -- even if it was for just one scene. "My character was a guy who basically was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says. "The whole series is like a Rubik's Cube, like a big puzzle."

J.B. Smoove, who appeared as Kenny on "'Til Death" with Brad Garrett, got noticed for that part while guesting on shows like HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris." The guest shot was akin to doing stand-up comedy, he says: "My stand-up is all based on improv."

Veteran Robert Morse turned up on AMC's "Mad Men," again playing a member of the ad world (he earned his rep with the 1967 film "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"). "I got a phone call from 'Mad Men' creator Matt Weiner's production office," he recalls. "I went, 'Oh my God, terrific.' I hadn't worked in a long, long time. There aren't that many parts for a 74-year-old man."

Research plays a role in getting a guest star's part down right, especially in the cases of Matthew Broderick (who played a White House aide on NBC's "30 Rock") and Christensen (who played an FBI agent on "SVU"). Broderick brushed up on Beltway politics by reading books about the Bush administration, while Christensen met with real-life agents.

"I've been exposed to DEA agents," she says. "The agencies are all different and they have their own passion. (My character is) actually created after (show consulting producer) Judy McCreary. She and I spoke a lot."

One pleasing aspect of guest roles on TV is that writers can tailor the character specifically to an actress they have in mind. For FX's "Nip/Tuck," creator Ryan Murphy pitched his concept to two-time Emmy winner Sharon Gless, who agreed to play the part. "It's a very complicated character," she says. "When he pitched it to me, he made me promise I (would) never tell anyone how it ends. When I went to do wardrobe, they didn't know what the end was."

Overall, guest roles tend to provide a very small canvas -- just a matter of scenes -- and can reward with TV's biggest prize. So no wonder, now that TV is in an ostensible

Golden Age, that Oscar winners are happy to take up what was once considered an lowly endeavor.

Mira Sorvino, who won her Academy Award for 1996's "Mighty Aphrodite," played a psychiatrist who falls prey to a mystery illness on Fox's "House." She says she usually turns down TV roles, opting to spend time with her kids, but appreciates doing the occasional guest spot.

"I've been generally a film actress," she says. "I see the benefit of doing TV and I see the great work. It's not a negative thing anymore."