Emmys: Why Rob Lowe Is Vying for a Lead Actor Nom When Ed O'Neill Is Not

Ron Tom.NBC

Actors decide whether to push for a lead or supporting nom. Is it time for the academy to add an ensemble category?

Nobody raised an eyebrow when Kelsey Grammer, Ray Romano or Alec Baldwin submitted themselves for -- and won -- the lead comedy actor Emmy. But when Rob Lowe announced May 9 that he was submitting himself as a lead contender for NBC's Parks and Recreation, awards watchers were suddenly critical: Who does this guy think he is?

The TV veteran tweeted to his fans, "Having three guys from the same show submit in 'supporting' didn't seem like a good idea in Pawnee."

Uh, shouldn't someone have told Lowe that he's not a lead on Parks? Sure, he is totally hilarious as peppy, overly endorphined town planner Chris Traeger. But he just joined the show last year and didn't become a series regular until the top of Season 3. He also clocks less screen time than Amy Poehler, the large cast's only real lead. So what gives?

For one, it's the canny ambition of a star with four Golden Globe noms and an Emmy nom for lead drama actor on NBC's The West Wing. He also habitually went for the lead Emmy on his erstwhile ABC drama Brothers and Sisters.

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But Lowe's move casts a stark light on one of the tougher problems the academy faces: How do you quantify and subsequently reward an actor's contribution, especially in crowded ensemble comedies and dramas?

"It's easier to pick somebody in the lead, but there are 20 times as many capable performers in support," says Mary Kay Place, a 1977 supporting actress winner for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and nominee last year for guest star on HBO's Big Love. "I think it's a good idea to have an Emmy for ensemble."

As the Emmy rules stand, an actor is forced to decide to submit him or herself in the supporting or lead category. An ensemble award, like that given out by the Screen Actors Guild, could provide a solution for actors who fall between the poles -- a dilemma that created a thorny problem for some notable performers in last year's Emmy race.

Take 2010's most egregious Emmy snub, Ed O'Neill on ABC's Modern Family, which Lowe might have been alluding to in his tweet. In the spirit of one for all, every adult member of the cast -- Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Sofia Vergara, Eric Stonestreet and O'Neill -- agreed to enter the race in support. Each was nominated except O'Neill, who might have made the cut in the less-crowded lead actor category had he contended there.

"Perhaps people thought he was in the wrong category," the show's co-creator, Steve Levitan, said of O'Neill the morning nominations were announced. Despite the snub in 2010, O'Neill has entered the race as supporting again this year.

Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members determine whether an actor qualifies for the support or lead Oscar race, the Emmys leave it to the candidates -- which can complicate a network or studio's campaign efforts. "While we happily provide guidance and advice, the decision always rests with the performer, and rightfully so," says Chris Alexander, senior vp corporate communications at 20th Century Fox TV, the studio behind Modern Family. "With ensemble shows, it can be entirely subjective."

John Leverence, vp awards at the TV Academy, posits a potential solution for future races.

"Maybe what we should do is have a lead actor, supporting actor and ensemble, like the SAG awards," says Leverence. He says an ensemble cast award could be added to the Emmy roster by invoking the academy's "Rule of 14," which says that if, for two consecutive years, at least 14 candidates emerge in a category that isn't currently recognized, it constitutes what Leverence terms "a distinct new entity, and it must be recognized and somehow incorporated" as a new category. If for two consecutive years there are fewer than 14 candidates, the academy can eliminate a category, as it did this year, merging movies and miniseries.

Could an ensemble category help ease the conundrum by providing a third option for those who go unrecognized? An ensemble nod would give them the statuette they deserve.

But an actor like Lowe probably wouldn't settle for an ensemble award. He might be only be content with standing out from the pack -- a choice that makes some Emmy candidates, like William H. Macy of Showtime's Shameless, feel uneasy.

"In all the ads, there's a big picture of me with the family around me," Macy says. "I have been uncomfortable with it from the beginning because it's such an ensemble. I'm not sure I have more to do than anybody else. I'm dead sure that I don't have more to do than Emmy Rossum. Jeremy [Allen White] is such a breakout performance, too. If anybody's front and center, it should be Emmy, not me. I'm No. 1 on the call sheet, but she does all the work. Nyah-nyah-nyah!"

Macy's role on Shameless as the shiftless head of a sprawling family is a bit like Lowe's on Parks: not exactly a lead, not exactly supporting. "Just to be blunt, they need authority in that role. They need to throw some weight," says Macy. "In Chicago, we called it 'chops.' "

Macy thinks Emmy might reconsider its rules. "The fault is in the categorization, not the product," he says. "If it doesn't fit into neat, predetermined categories, that's got to be a good sign that we're breaking out."

So is the nine-time Emmy nominee going for supporting or lead this year? "Crikey! I don't know if I've made a decision," says Macy. "It's probably not smart of me."           

10 ACTORS TO WATCH: These guys definitely fit the supporting bill, and all are front-runners for an Emmy nom

  • Scott BakulaMen of a Certain Age (TNT)
  • Chris ColferGlee (Fox)
  • Max BurkholderParenthood (NBC)
  • Jesse Tyler FergusonModern Family (ABC)
  • Walton GogginsJustified (FX)
  • Kunal NayyarThe Big Bang Theory (CBS)
  • Joel KinnamanThe Killing (AMC)
  • Nick OffermanParks and Recreation (NBC)