Guest appearances on a series can be a challenge for actors to do, a joy for the networks to market, exciting for audiences to watch and, one year at the Emmy kudocast, something that seemed awfully confusing and unfair.
“They’re a lot of fun,” says Marta Kauffman, exec producer and creator of “Friends,” which had Bruce Willis on for three episodes. “When someone like that says they want to do your show, you go, ‘Sure, that would be great.’ It gives you the chance to write all sorts of fun things that they’re certainly capable of doing.”
Fun things? Absolutely, like having Willis be the father of a student whom Ross (David Schwimmer) is dating, and having him move in on Jennifer Aniston’s character.
For William H. Macy, it is being a ratings gunslinger on “Sports Night.” For Jean Smart and Kim Coles, it is going toe to toe with Kelsey Grammer in “Frasier.” For Henry Winkler, it is playing a man who is sexually aroused by women crushing bugs with their feet on three episodes of “The Practice.”
“When I read the part, I was wondering what I said yes to,” Winkler says. “It was a challenge to wrap my brain around a man like that, to make him human, complete, vulnerable and a good dad.”
The just-concluded TV season spawned a number of guest shots worthy of Emmy noms, according to a survey of five television critics. In addition to Coles, Macy, Smart, Willis and Winkler, other thesps include Jane Alexander in both “Law & Order” and its spinoff, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Beatrice Arthur in Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” James Garner in “Chicago Hope,” Marlee Matlin in both “The Practice” and “The West Wing,” Roger Rees in “The West Wing,” Beah Richards in “The Practice” and Molly Shannon in “Will & Grace.”
“Just about anybody who goes on ‘The Practice’ has a shot,” says USA Today’s TV writer Robert Bianco. “The Emmy has this inexplicable affection for David Kelley and everything he does.”
Determining what else Emmy voters favor in the guest performance categories is a little harder to pin down. The winners list includes big names, not-so-big names, actors in roles working against type and four repeaters (Mel Brooks, Colleen Dewhurst, Jay Thomas and Tracey Ullman). So who has the advantage? Who knows.
“You would hope that it’s the best work that wins,” Kauffman says. “It’s very hard for me to understand how that all works. I’ve sort of given up trying. You just go out and do the best you can do.”
Still, some performers do have an edge, says Jeff Greenberg, the casting director for “Frasier” and the upcoming John Goodman series “Don’t Ask.”
“A show like ‘Frasier,’ which is high profile, gives actors a little better chance than some nonstar on a less-watched show,” he says. “But they still have to be good. It’s so competitive. There are so many other topnotch shows that have great guest actors.”
From an actor’s standpoint, short guest spots can produce some big career challenges.
“It is as difficult, and sometimes even more difficult, to play a small role than it is to play a larger one,” Winkler says. “You have much less time to embroider the fabric of the character. They say in drama school, ‘There are no small parts, only small actors.’ And that’s really true.”
The Emmy Awards started honoring guest performances in 1986, giving actors a chance at kudos for their brief series shots. Plus, it added some star wattage to the nontelevised technical awards show, during which they’re handed out.
The category’s most intriguing moment came in 1992, when guest stars competed against series regulars. That year’s wacky noms had Ted Danson, the barkeep on “Cheers,” going against cast mate Grammer for best comedy actor. Trouble was, Grammer wasn’t up for his “Cheers” work; he copped a nod for a one-shot guest appearance as Dr. Frasier Crane on “Wings.”
As it turned out, Craig T. Nelson bagged the Emmy in the comedy category for ABC’s “Coach.” But the fireworks didn’t end there. Christopher Lloyd, who did a single-episode spot on Disney’s “Road to Avonlea,” broke through as best actor in a drama, beating series regulars Rob Morrow (CBS’ “Northern Exposure”) and Sam Waterston (NBC’s “I’ll Fly Away”), among others.
“The press room just exploded into boos,” says Thomas O’Neil, author of “Variety‘s The Emmys.” “It was the worst possible thing,” winning against nominees who did 20-plus episodes. (The win was significant for another reason; it was the first major series victory for a cable program at the Prime Time Emmys.)
Greenberg, who before “Frasier” worked on “Cheers” and “Wings,” says that problem was fixed the following year when guest-performance nominees were returned to their own categories.
“Every year they refine the Emmy Awards in different ways, and it gets clearer and clearer,” he says. “It’s pretty fair now, in terms of guest actors, lead actors and supporting actors.”