Nearly 40 years ago, Ted Danson was one of America’s biggest stars, playing Sam Malone on Cheers. After 11 seasons, he transitioned to other popular roles through the ’90s and early 2000s — long-running sitcom Becker, legal thriller Damages, weirdo comedy Bored to Death, procedural CSI and crime anthology Fargo. But arguably, his most zeitgeisty turn in decades has been as spritely reformed demon Michael on NBC’s The Good Place, a sitcom that explores the afterlife. For this limber performance, he scored his 17th Emmy nom (and second for the role).
Danson, 71, isn’t the only Hollywood veteran on the 2019 Emmy roster. From comedienne Catherine O’Hara, 65 (Schitt’s Creek), to Oscar winner Alan Arkin, 85 (The Kominsky Method), seasoned performers not only are finding new opportunities on TV but also hitching themselves to prominent projects among the ever-flooding waters of Peak TV.
That said, this is not our grandparents’ Emmys anymore. Just a few years ago, the awards were still dominated by network sitcoms and beloved old-guard vets getting repeat nods each year (Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory). Yet, even as this year’s Emmys have exploded with millennial faves — cultish, social media-loving hits such as Russian Doll, Fleabag and Schitt’s Creek — older generations of performers are shining on many of these searing comedies and dramas.
Among this year’s older acting honorees: Michael Douglas, 74 (The Kominsky Method); Eugene Levy, 72 (Schitt’s Creek); Henry Winkler, 73 (Barry); Michael McKean, 71 (Better Call Saul); Stellan Skarsgard (Chernobyl); Cicely Tyson, 94 (How to Get Away With Murder); and Ron Cephas Jones, 62 (This Is Us). For many actors, senescence is coming with deliciously jagged roles.
Lifetime legacy certainly plays a part in many of these nods. In September, Winkler charmed audiences when he won his first-ever Emmy for playing slimy/avuncular acting coach Gene Cousineau on HBO’s Barry. Winkler is a TV legend, and this trophy not only encompasses his multilayered performance on Barry but also his many gifts to comedy over the past 40 years, including Happy Days‘ ultimate cool-guy heartthrob, The Fonz. If O’Hara were to win for her daffy turn as wig-loving disgraced soap star Moira Rose on Canadian sleeper hit Schitt’s Creek, the trophy also would be a thank-you for her contributions to entertainment over the past five decades, from SCTV to Beetlejuice to the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest.
TV used to be the destination for once-mighty thespians to flame out their careers for quick cash. (In Jacqueline Susann’s classic 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls, Judy Garland-esque fallen starlet Neely O’Hara laments having to work the “no-talent” boob tube.) These days, as streaming behemoths Netflix, Hulu and Amazon compete with burgeoning subscription video services like Disney+, Apple TV, HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s upcoming streaming platform, so-called “small-screen” content is king.
The streaming wars are igniting green lights for new projects across ravenous networks and paving the way for a torrent of stories and casting choices striving to combat the sexism, racism, homophobia and ageism in the entertainment industry. A half decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Oscar nominee like Jeff Bridges to sign on to a cable drama, a onetime signal of has-been territory. Now his boarding FX’s The Old Man is seen as a prestige career move — just ask Big Little Lies‘ future Emmy winner Meryl Streep.
TV, however, is more than a notch in the bedpost for marquee names. It’s also a chance for some to breathe life into a career that stagnated due to Hollywood’s fear of aging women. Shows like Grace and Frankie and American Horror Story have offered icons like Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates the ability to connect with younger audiences. Still, there’s a long way to go for older women in TV. While men are encouraged to age gracefully into silver foxes and grizzled grandpas onscreen, many actresses must rely on young visionary directors to take a chance on them again when casting their hot new TV series. For every Fleabag, let’s hope there’s another Grace and Frankie just around the corner.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.