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Emmys Make It Tough to Make a Name

August 07, 2000|ADAM CARL

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has announced the nominees for Emmy 2000, and the whole industry is abuzz. Will it be "The Sopranos" or "The West Wing"? Martin Sheen or James Gandolfini? Cable or network? Just who will the big winners be?

While no one will know the answers to those questions until the envelopes are opened during the Emmy telecast Sept. 10 on ABC, I can already tell you who the big losers are: working actors who aren't celebrities.

Once again, in the four categories relating to best guest performance in a prime-time series, every single nominee is a "name" actor.

The list is a veritable Who's Who of show-biz royalty: Alan Alda, Bea Arthur, Kirk Douglas, Carl Reiner, Debbie Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Jean Smart, Bruce Willis. Henry Winkler was even nominated twice, for both comedy and drama, until the comedy nod was revoked on a technicality. Who took the slot? William H. Macy.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 12, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Emmy procedures--A Counterpunch article in Monday's Calendar incorrectly stated that ballots for selecting Emmy Award nominees for best guest performance in a prime-time series are sent to all members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. In fact, the academy uses a peer-group nominating and voting process, so the ballots for acting are sent only to members of the academy's performers branch.

In fact, of the 20 nominees in these categories, only one--veteran character actress Beah Richards--could arguably be considered not a celebrity, and even she is well known to academy voters. Clearly, the Emmys should change the name of the award to best celebrity in a guest role.

I do not mean to disparage the talented nominees. To be sure, some of these famous actors have given performances over the years that deserved accolades, and some may even be deserving this year (personally, I think Macy's "Sports Night" turn was terrific). But there are thousands of unknown actors who make their living playing guest roles on television, and not one of them has been honored this year by the academy--no matter how hilarious or moving those performances may have been.

In fact, based on the current nominations, one wouldn't know that anyone but a star was ever a guest on any show. It is more than an oversight; it is an insult.

Think back to the television season just past. How often were we blown away by a journeyman performance on "ER," "Law & Order," "The West Wing" or "The Practice"? Now, how often did we know that actor's name? How about the transient characters on our favorite sitcoms, the ones who cracked us up? Rarely were the actors famously funny. I would venture that more than 90% of guest roles on television are played by actors whose names we don't know. Is it really possible then that none of these performers merited a nomination alongside their famous colleagues? The idea is absurd.

The star-driven nominations in these categories are an annual slap in the face to guest actors everywhere who toil in relative anonymity, struggling to make a living and a modicum of a name for themselves; actors who must by definition blend in seamlessly with the style of any given show while stars stick out like sore thumbs; actors who could clearly benefit from the cachet and exposure that an Emmy nomination would provide.

Academy rules do not require that a guest actor be well known in order to be considered for an Emmy, only that he or she receive guest billing. And according to an official at the academy with whom I spoke, television producers (not to mention agents, managers and the actors themselves) do indeed submit noncelebrity performances for consideration. "Do they get nominated?" she asked rhetorically. "Not very often." Shame on the academy.


Admittedly, much of this may have to do with the nominating process. The first ballot--about 50 performances in each category, close to 200 in the aggregate for the guest categories alone--goes out to the entire academy membership without the benefit of tapes. Can we really expect the voters to look at this daunting paper ballot and recognize the names and performances of non-famous actors? Certainly not. Celebrities, then, get voted for by default. We know their names and their histories, so they must have been good, right? This ensures that the second ballot of 10 performances--and, hence, the final five nominees--will all have stellar name recognition.

Don't get me wrong: A celebrity could very well give a performance deserving of an award. But the idea that only celebrities are worthy is an outrageous insult to the vast majority of guest performers and to those of us who are made richer by their vital and valuable contributions to our favorite shows.

If those responsible for the Emmys are truly interested in not just "putting on a show" but genuinely recognizing what makes one great, they will make the necessary changes--even if it means overhauling the nominating process--to rectify this regrettable situation. Until these changes are made, the Emmys will continue to bestow honors not based on the quality of the performance, but on the luster of the star.


Adam Carl of Los Angeles wrote and directed the independent feature "Performance Anxiety." He can be reached at


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