Supporting players provide base for long-running dramas

For actors, supporting gigs generally come in two forms: Some, as the description implies, support heavyweight lead thesps, and then there are ensembles without any true leads.

Maura Tierney enjoys being part of the latter on “ER.”

“It’s nice for me as an actor because I get to really work with and be challenged by other great actors and everybody gets their turn in the spotlight,” she says.

Henry Simmons, working backup to Dennis Franz on ABC cop drama “NYPD Blue,” believes his is the more arresting assignment.

“For this show in particular, being a role player or supporting player is extremely integral to the success of the show,” he says. “Dennis is the face of ‘NYPD Blue,’ and he has one particular color, which is extremely intent. But all the other characters add different colors to the canvas.”

When it comes to the color gold — particularly during Emmy season — voters have embraced each of the long-running skeins. NBC’s Thursday night hospital drama has earned 16 supporting bids, while “Blue” has picked up 15.

More recently, Emmy voters have looked to “The West Wing” (11 noms and two wins in the past two years), “Everybody Loves Raymond” (six mentions, four wins), “Sex in the City” and “Six Feet Under” (four nominations each).

“You really have a good sense of the characters in all four of those shows,” says Rob Owen, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s TV editor. “The characters have been well-defined and they’re easy to get a handle on.”

Skeins with supporting casts that haven’t received the Emmy recognition they’re due, according to Owen, include FX’s “The Shield” and two that are going bye-bye — CBS’ “The Guardian” and NBC’s “Ed.”

But Emmys aren’t the be all and end all in the view of at least two thesps. “Here’s the thing,” Simmons says. “Every actor wants to have his work recognized, for someone to say, ‘You’re doing a good job,’ or whatever. I don’t feel like I need recognition in terms of awards. It would be nice but it’s not something I crave.”

Same goes for Miguel Ferrer, who plays the boss of Jill Hennessy’s crusading medical examiner on NBC’s “Crossing Jordan.”

“We don’t get the cover of TV Guide, and we don’t get the Emmy push for some reason,” Ferrer says. “I can’t worry about the Golden Globes or the Emmys. It’s something that I virtually have no control over. And at the end of the day it really isn’t going to change my life a whole lot.”

Juicy supporting parts, however, do change lives. That’s what Melissa George found after turning a limited role into a whole season’s worth of work, playing a double agent involved in a love triangle this year on “Alias.”

“It has opened up a lot of doors,” the actress says of her part on the ABC Sunday night actioner. “Now instead of being one out of 300 trying to get on the shortlist, I’m now one out of two for a lot of projects.”

Since the screen time for supporting players is limited compared with their leading counterparts, it’s easier for many of them to work on the side.

Simmons, for example, did two movies and an HBO project while keeping up with his “Blue” duties. Ferrer juggled “Jordan” along with this summer’s “The Manchurian Candidate” remake and the upcoming John Sayles drama “Silver City.” “ER’s” Tierney sidelined her stethoscope to share the screen with Ray Romano and Gene Hackman in spring’s “Welcome to Mooseport.”

But usually for supporting players, the main job is where it’s at.

“When the season starts up again, it’s just like you’re going back to your family,” says Simmons, who this fall will be working his sixth year at “Blue’s” 15th Precinct. “It’s almost like the character is a suit that you wear for nine months and then take it off for three months when you can be yourself. Then you pick up the suit again when it’s time to go and put it back on.”

Generally, strong roles on successful shows should equal job security. But that’s not always the case, says Tierney, who will be working her fifth year at Chicago’s fictional County General Hospital.

“ER” — much like other long-running skeins — has seen the arrival and departure of numerous characters throughout its 10 seasons, including the spectacular demise of Dr. Romano (Paul McCrane) during November’s sweeps.

“As an actor, I don’t know if I will ever really have a sense of job security. It’s really not in the nature of this business,” Tierney says. “Besides, on this show they drop helicopters on extremely talented actors, so you never know.”

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