Politics plays part in past Emmycasts

From Alley's 'big one' speech to Alda's cartwheel, show has been lively

The Emmys kudocast, more than just a celebration of great TV, can be memorable in its own right.

Some of the best moments are unplanned as Kirstie Alley proved when she shocked the audience in 1991 by thanking her then-husband Parker Stevenson for giving her “the big one for the past eight years.” And there was Alan Alda, who reigns today as the only winner to ever cartwheel down the aisle at a kudocast, when he was heading to the podium to collect his trophy for writing an episode of “MASH” in 1979.

Although the TV awards gala dates back to 1949, it didn’t premiere on national TV till 1955, just two years after the first Oscarcast. The debut was a ratings blockbuster, drawing in nearly three-quarters of the nation’s TV audience.

Except for the temporary use of twin locales, the Emmy ceremony has remained more or less the same for 51 years — with a few notable exceptions. Dinner and drinks are no longer served (the banquets were scrapped in the late 1960s) and for good reason. Stars slated to be presenters often showed up drunk backstage and had to be locked in the green room until the show was over.

The fashions have changed, too, of course, and often they stole the spotlight — sometimes disastrously so. Barbara Stanwyck ripped her evening dress on the arm of her seat while leaping up to collect a golden girl in 1961. A strapless gown nearly caused Alfre Woodard much embarrassment when she headed to the stage in 1984 to be honored for a guest spot on “Hill Street Blues.”

When Betty Thomas, another “Hill Street” honoree, took too much time getting to the stage one year later, it led to the telecast’s oddest scene. A mysterious man got to the podium first, accepted her statuette, thanked, of all people, sportscaster Dick Schaap and then scooted. Police arrested the imposter backstage on the charge of grand theft. (Impersonating an Emmy winner was not a crime, one cop noted.)

Almost no Emmy winners showed up for the 1980 telecast when the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists called a TV-wide boycott during a salary dispute with the networks. The show went on anyway, and one champ was actually present.

As Powers Boothe accepted the TV film actor trophy for “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones,” he told the audience, “This is either the most courageous moment of my career or the stupidest.”

The “Murphy Brown” gang showed no hesitation of entering the political fray in 1992 when they took potshots at Vice President Dan Quayle in response to his criticism of the show’s unwed-mother plotline.

Actress champ Candice Bergen thanked everyone in the “Murphy” family, adding, “I can’t think of better family values than that.” Creator Diane English quoted a line of Brown’s from the show: “I couldn’t possibly do a worse job raising my kid alone than the Reagans did with theirs.”

Will work for Emmy

But sometimes stars can behave quite humbly at the podium, revealing touching inner insecurities. Tony Randall and William Windom both used their moments in the Emmy spotlight to ask for jobs. Valerie Harper thanked her analyst.

Outer frailties can be apparent, too. In 1975, when Lucille Ball was 64 years old, her eyesight was failing and she moved slowly as she mounted the stage to announce the winner of best comedy. “I’m really in trouble!” she gasped at the podium when she realized she’d forgotten her eyeglasses.

Milton Berle raced to her rescue with a wineglass, saying, “Here, look through this!” When she brushed the gagster aside with a laugh, he returned with someone else’s reading glasses. She donned them, opened the envelope and announced, “And the winner is ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show!'”

The news blasted through Emmy history like a trumpet, providing the telecast with its most dramatic moment ever. With that single victory, “Mary Tyler Moore” became the award’s biggest all-time champ

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