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All stars, all the time

By definition, SAG's kudofest doesn't skimp on celeb quotient

Forget the funny monologues, those song-and-dance numbers and the odd acceptance speech by sound effects editors and makeup artists: When it comes to the SAG Awards, it’s all about the actors.

The kudofest, which this year will honor thesps from projects including “Brokeback Mountain” and “Desperate Housewives,” amounts to a no-fat exercise in celebrity worship, unique because it’s exclusively about on-camera talent — you know, the ones whom millions of viewers tune in to see how fit they look, what they’re wearing and what they’ll say.

“It’s actors celebrating in their own home, it’s their union, and that’s the most important thing for us to remember,” says veteran producer Kathy Connell. “If they’re at ease and have a pleasant experience, it translates to a good show.”

TNT will once again serve as the television outlet, with this year’s 12th annual event set for Sunday at the Shrine Exposition Center. Last year’s show drew 3.4 million viewers, up slightly from 2004 but down from 2003 when 4.8 million tuned in — the largest audience since the show moved to TNT from NBC in 1998. However, it’s a far cry from the more than 11 million viewers who tuned in a decade ago when viewership was not so fractured and awards weren’t so rampant.

This time around, an earlier date — dictated by factors ranging from the network’s schedule, venue availability and the desire to avoid facing NFL playoffs — has producers of the show scrambling a bit. They’re basically trying to achieve last year’s production demands in two weeks’ less time.

“It’s awkward and something of a challenge, but we’ll be up to it,” says Jeff Margolis, who’s back for his eighth stint as exec producer.

The Screen Actors Guild kudocast has been lauded for its streamlined approach of no hosts and a two-hour running time. “We consider the presenters hosts of their own segment,” says Margolis. “That’s what helps keep this show moving.”

Alan Carter is back as director for a second time, and Margolis credits him for a fresh approach to the telecast. “He repositioned cameras and had different entrance ideas,” Margolis says, “so it was good to get a little kick in the butt.”

Margolis said this year’s show will see an upgrade of the set, a change in the style of music and a completely new graphics style. But the biggest change from one year’s telecast to the next is the actors themselves.

“One of the things I can do to change the show is come up with some presenter ideas that are interesting and maybe unexpected,” he says, adding that he tries to get first-time presenters whenever possible.

Marg Helgenberger, William Shatner and Patricia Arquette are tapped on the TV side, and Hilary Swank is among the film presenters.

Margolis and Connell also have high hopes for the segment honoring Shirley Temple Black with SAG’s 42nd annual Lifetime Achievement Award.

Young actress Dakota Fanning will set up a film tribute to Temple Black, after which Jamie Lee Curtis will present the award to Hollywood’s biggest star of the 1930s.

Another unique feature of the SAG Awards is its “I am an actor” segments, which will return for a third straight year, opening the telecast. The impromptu moments find actors speaking of what the craft means to them and how they began, with the camera and mic following the thesps to their seat.

Two years ago, David Hyde Pierce, who had just come off the end of “Frasier,” got some laughs by ending his turn with, “I’m an actor who’s available and I’d love to do a film.”

“It’s made for some wonderful moments,” says Connell, “and everybody loves it.”

She’s also proud of the ensemble categories, which were introduced in the early stages of the SAG Awards in the 1990s.

“You now hear critics talking about the works of ensembles, and other shows are honoring them as well,” Connell says. “It represents the union and understanding the chemistry that is key to a great ensemble.”

The greatest ensemble of them all, though, will be the collection of thesps toasting their own.

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