Although the term "stunt-casting" has a somewhat negative industry connotation, it certainly makes sweeps a lot more fun for TV viewers. And perhaps even more important, the pageant of big-name guest stars parading through prime time usually gets the attention of Emmy voters. While not every guest role was filled by a marquee actor, the 2008-09 television season has plenty to brag about when it comes to luring compelling stars to its shows. Consider Amy Ryan playing a hapless human resources manager on "The Office," "Mad Men's" Jon Hamm guesting as a man getting by on his looks on "30 Rock," Albert Brooks filling in as Nancy's judgmental father-in-law on "Weeds," Ted Danson as a corrupt businessman on "Damages." Certainly, television academy members will have their work cut out for them when the ballots arrive.
A woman's take
Among the notable guests on TV this season was veteran actress Tyne Daly, who showed up at "Grey's Anatomy's" Seattle Grace as Dr. Shepherd's mother, Carolyn. The "Cagney & Lacey" and "Judging Amy" star, who's no stranger to the Emmys, says that not only did she enjoy playing Mrs. Shepherd but also she's glad to see so many accomplished actresses in prime time. "There's a whole lot of women who have graduated back to television because it's a place where there are opportunities."
However, she notes that the roles for women on television haven't progressed over the last few decades as much as she thought they would. "They are either in conflict with their women costar or they are surrounded by a bunch of men who save the day or with whom they have to have conflict."
Fox's dark places
One of the most buzzed-about guest stars is TV favorite Michael J. Fox, who appeared on "Rescue Me" as Dwight, a dark, pill-popping paraplegic who's dating the main character's ex-wife. Fox, a longtime friend of the show's creator and star, Denis Leary, says he enjoyed playing against type. "The way I see it is I can't just make this guy goofy. I have to make him really damaged. It's hard for me to watch because I feel like, 'Ah, Jesus, the poor bastard.' "
"Desperate Housewives" knows its way around conflict among female characters, but for guest stars Lily Tomlin and Kathy Joosten it was an awful lot of fun. The pair play the sleuthing McCluskey sisters, which wasn't a stretch for them -- they're close friends in real life. Joosten won the Emmy last year for playing Karen, while Tomlin plays Roberta. "I went on the set directly with Kathy. We did all of our scenes together. It was like the Karen and Roberta show. I didn't notice those other housewives were there," Tomlin says of the experience. Joosten adds: "We didn't see 'em! Unless you're doing scenes with them, they're not there."
A distinct lack of ideals characterizes the role Eric Stoltz took on "Grey's Anatomy." Stoltz plays William Dunn, a prison inmate who's on death row for murder and arrives at Seattle Grace for treatment, throwing a moral wrench into things by calmly recounting his crimes to Drs. Yang and Grey. "I think it's always fun to play Richard III," says Stoltz, who also directed two episodes of the show earlier in the season.
Stoltz adds that moving from directing back to acting on the same set was a humbling experience. "To go from trying to steer a scene to trying to bring it to life from within is a big difference. Directing has only increased my admiration and respect for what it is that actors do."
Also no nice guy, Jimmy Smits added a new dimension to the latest season of "Dexter" in his role as Miguel Prado, a district attorney who befriends the lovable serial killer and turns out to have a dark side of his own. But Smits says he thinks of Miguel as complex rather than all-around bad. "He really believed what he was doing was the right thing to be doing. And that gets corrupted. Hey, how many examples in government do we see of this quest for ideals [getting] spun and justified?"