SAG Awards Producers Reveal Origin of Signature "I Am an Actor" Opener

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Kathy Connell

Over the past 25 years, more than 100 actors — from Michael Keaton to Angela Lansbury — have participated in the ceremony's iconic first segment, but Kathy Connell says there is a formula on who is included and that Meryl Streep is at the top of their wish list.

I am an actor. This phrase has become a mainstay for the past 25 years of the Screen Actors Guild Awards, as at the beginning of every telecast, a select group of actors share their stories, whether they be funny, amusing or heartwarming. 

Take Angela Lansbury, who was tasked with explaining the significance of the “Actor” statuette at the very first SAG Awards on March 8, 1995, along with introducing her own “I am an actor” story. “I’ve been Elizabeth Taylor’s sister, Spencer Tracy’s mistress, Elvis’ mother and a singing teapot,” she recalled.

Opening and closing the evening, Lansbury’s presence was “so huge for us” at the time, according to executive producer of the ceremony, Kathy Connell, as Lansbury “had all these credits, was on a hit show [Murder, She Wrote], and had done Broadway. She was an actor’s actor.”

But Michael Keaton was actually the first to distinctly say, “I’m an actor,” at the second show in 1996. Until the ninth ceremony, only one actor regaled the audience with tales of their work, consecutively Dennis Hopper, John Lithgow, Kathy Bates, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods and Ian McKellen.

The starting lineup grew in 2003, after supervising producer Gloria Fujita O'Brien suggested that five stars' stories would create a more dynamic opener. "I loved the inspiration of the show," she tells THR, "and I thought that five people telling short stories would inspire all of the new people coming up.”

Connell says deciding those five actors comes down to, "Who would we like to hear from?" after taking a look at who is in the room every year. "Maybe in some cases, they’re already presenting a film clip on their own, so those people wouldn’t be an actor’s story. We do try to make sure we have a seasoned actor and a younger actor."

From Robert Duvall to Millie Bobby Brown, more than 100 actors have participated in the “I am an actor” opener. Before the live show, each actor goes over their speech with Fujita O’Brien backstage. “Sometimes we cut it down because shorter is better,” she says. “A lot of them, believe it or not, are very nervous. This is live, and a lot of the actors aren’t used to saying something in their own words — not a character’s.”

While neither Connell nor O’Brien could divulge anything more than that viewers can expect “a couple of real surprises this year,” they both consider the legendary Meryl Streep a dream actor for the segment. “She’s presented on our show many times, but I don’t think she’s ever done an actor story,” Connell says.

Fujita O’Brien adds that she is also looking ahead to the actors coming up, in particular those who are not necessarily young but who have been around a long time and are suddenly hitting their stride like J.K. Simmons and Ann Dowd. “Those are the stories that I would love to hear,” she says.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.