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Oprah Winfrey Honors Shonda Rhimes at Television Academy Hall of Fame

From modern water cooler-moment dramas to groundbreaking late night comedy; from topical, transformative series in absorbing settings to taboo-busting stand-up comics and character-reflecting sitcom settings, the 24th Annual Television Academy Hall of Fame ceremony honored the crème de la crème from the past five decades of channel-surfing – and offered a few of its own water cooler moments along the way.

The 2017 inductees were a glittery and profoundly influential crop indeed: Writer-producer Shonda Rhimes, the creator and executive producer of zeitgeist-heavy series including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder”; writer-producer John Wells, whose groundbreaking series include “China Beach,” “ER” “The West Wing” and “Shameless”; the late comedian, talk show host and television personality Joan Rivers; production designer Roy Christopher, who crafted iconic environments for sitcoms like “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Murphy Brown” and “Frasier,” along with many Academy Award and Emmy ceremonies; and the legendary original cast members of “Saturday Night Live,” Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Case, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and, posthumously, Gilda Radner and John Belushi.

 

Wilmore presided over a fast-paced and decidedly heartfelt ceremony that started off big when he invited one of TV’s biggest icons, Oprah Winfrey, to take the stage to pay tribute to honoree Rhimes.

“She could not have come at another time, she could not have come to another place,” said Winfrey. “She belongs to this medium, and she belongs to this moment in a way that doesn’t so much defy the odds as redefine the odds. She is currently the most powerful show runner in television, period.”

“Shonda tells stories that reflect the wonderfully multicultural, multiracial, multi-everything world that we see all around us, and she writes about individuals from different backgrounds who defy stereotypes,” Winfrey added. “She doesn’t write about problems. She writes about people, and she makes us care about the people, and she makes us care about ourselves.”

When Rhimes took the stage to accept her award, her speech quickly turned to the topic of diversity, which she admits “bugs the crap out of me” whenever journalists ask her about it. “I am endlessly asked the diversity question in every interview, ‘Why is diversity so important?’ And we all know why I’m the one who’s asked: it’s the adjectives. You put an adjective in front of the word ‘writer’ – female writer, black writer – and suddenly all anyone asks about, all you are allowed to talk about, is the adjective, and not the ‘writer’ part.”

Rhimes admitted she never understood the constant focus on her various series’ approach to presenting a broad spectrum of characters and experiences. “I was always like, ‘Go ask someone who isn’t hiring any women or people of color.’ I loathe the question, and yet, because of this moment, because this moment is happening, I finally actually know the answer.”

But she promised to address the issue one last time, quipping that the evening’s circumstances were irresistibly definitive. “My answer is to be the world’s best humble brag: ‘I am so sorry, but when I was standing on stage with Oprah, at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I answered that question for the final time in my career.’”

Rhimes recalled her 1970s-era upbringing in middle-class suburban Chicago when, thanks to concerted efforts by her parents, particularly her mother, she grew up “blissfully unaware” of the potential sexism and racism boundaries that could derail her dreams. But it was the example of another woman that truly sparked Rhimes’ belief in all that she might one day accomplish.

“One day I turned on the TV, and saw something that had never occurred to me to imagine,” Rhimes recalled. “I saw this woman on TV and she was smart, and funny, and emotionally honest, and she seemed unapologetically herself. She was in charge, comfortable, powerful, smart, real. It was her show, and she looked like me. She was a black woman on television, and then she was a black woman taking over the world, through television. She was Oprah.”

As Winfrey stood nearby, mouth agape, Rhimes continued. “Oprah Winfrey changed my imagination,” she recalled. “She changed what I found to be unimaginable, any limits to my success suddenly seemed, something clicked, and my imagination had no limits, the world got wider. It wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t just Oprah, but Oprah was my first and most powerful example on TV of someone who looked like me.”

“I knew that that world, this world, could include me – so it’s important, this annoying question that I hate so very much,” Rhimes explained. “For some of our viewers, Olivia Pope was the first black woman they ever knew. First one they’ve ever empathized with, understood, rooted for, loved, or pride with. That wasn’t my plan, I’m telling a story. The side effect was creating empathy.”

Rhimes noted that “you cannot be what you cannot see, and the only limits to your success are your own imagination.” She implored anyone watching television, no matter where they were in the world, to be “any damn thing they want.” “And that is why diversity and inclusion on television is so important,” she said.

“Scandal” star Bellamy Young told Variety that Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy” changed “everything” for her because when “everyone was represented.”

“I saw the world instead of a very whitewashed version of the world, a very cleaned-up, antiseptic version. I saw everybody and they were living messy lives and really talking to each other,” Young said. “There’s a truth in representing everyone instead of just representing a narrow story. You don’t feel like you can only bring out the acceptable parts of yourself, you really can bring your whole truth and it can be messy, it can be human, and it can be inspiring. There’s a place for it, there’s a place for everybody at her table.”

After Winfrey impressed and Rhimes inspired, the assembled audience – which included “Shameless” stars William H. Macy, Emmy Rossum and Shanola Hampton, “Scandal’s” Tony Goldwyn, Joe Morton, Darby Stanchfield, Scott Foley and Katie Lowes and “Grey’s Anatomy’s” Kim Raver, James Pickens, Jr., Jason George, Debbie Allen, Isaiah Washington and Sarah Drew, “Private Practice’s” Kate Walsh and KaDee Strickland, and TV icons Phylicia Rashad and Jimmy Smits – saved its most raucous response for when Lily Tomlin invited the original Not Ready for Primetime Players to take the stage.

Curtin, Chase, Newman, Aykroyd and Morris clowned in individual acceptance speeches that included fond nod to their late cohorts Belushi and Radner, as well as call backs to classic sketches like Land Shark and “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!”

Bill Murray made a surprise appearance in the audience, and was later invited onstage, admitting that because he didn’t formally join the “SNL” cast until its second season, he hadn’t been invited to attend the ceremony until Newman brought him as her guest. “It’s actually okay, I’m fine,” said Murray. “It really was a delight to sit there and to watch them, because the truth is that they are history, and I’m just lucky enough that I was the new guy, and I’m okay with being the new guy. I always was okay with that – except five minutes ago: I really was bitter.”

Of his time on “SNL,” Akroyd told Variety that was probably “the most exciting” part of his career. “We genuinely loved each other and we genuinely appreciated each other’s talent, and we were supportive of each other,” Aykroyd said. “Chevy was my biggest champion at ‘SNL,’ when I was trying things that other people might not think would work, ideas and stuff, Chevy was always like, ‘Go for it! Make it happen.’ He was my biggest cheerleader, and he was a huge star just right off the bat. Many of us were lesser-known then and he used his platform to support his fellow players, admire them in public, and bring focus to Jane, Laraine, myself, Garrett, Gilda, and John.”

Aykroyd also noted that he found a spiritual brother in co-star Belushi, with whom he famously performed as the Blues Brothers on the show, on stage and on film. “We had eight wonderful years together,” mused Aykroyd. “And today, 40 years later, I just did a concert in Minnesota as a Blues Brother, I still do that persona…and that’s pretty good, after 40 years to still get a paycheck for something we did in our 20s.”

Newman reminisced with Variety over her surprise at the original cast’s impact on popular culture, still one of “SNL’s” signature qualities. “Gilda and I would be walking down the street the next day and people would yell out lines that we had said the night before. That was like, ‘Hey – people are watching!’”

Murray, who only appeared in a handful of Season 1 sketched, didn’t realize how powerful the show was in re-runs, either. “I remember I had only done like a couple shows, and then we had the summer off, and I came back in the fall having done like a job somewhere, a movie somewhere, and everyone in New York knew who I was, it seemed like it. Just from re-runs, that’s when I knew it was over: life had changed,” he said.

Meanwhile Morris shared that in the early days of acclimating to his new role with the show, he just cared about paying his rent on a regular basis. “There was a lot of talent, lot of geniuses, around, but I wasn’t so much concerned with that as just trying to make sure that I did right! It was great to be around that kind of creativity, but at first I was just glad I got a job!” he said.

After an introduction by “ER’s” Noah Wylie, Wells admitted he’d missed the deadline to file a prepared speech for the TelePrompTer, but in his off-the-cuff speech he did cite some impressive numbers about the deep bench of collaborators who’ve worked with him throughout his long career, “because it takes a very large village to raise a writer.”

“I started to make a list of people I wanted to thank tonight, and then realized how many people there were that are deserving of my gratitude for all their hard work on my behalf,” said Wells. “I’ve had the great, good fortune to work with 8,048 actors over the last 25 years, 139 writers, 172 directors – all of us working together to make over 900 hours of television, most of which we’re pretty proud of. And nobody does that by themselves.”

“Most of all, I hope I get to keep doing this for awhile longer,” he added. “Working with the people I love, telling stories we care about.”

Bradley Whitford, who starred on Wells’ “The West Wing,” said after spending “the better part of a decade” on his sets, he has found Wells is incredibly inclusive with storytelling.

“There are a lot of people that kiss the actor’s asses and treat other people with contempt, but the first thing John says when you’re doing a TV show with him is that ‘In success this is a family, so let’s take care of each other,'” Whitford said. “He’s always saying ‘Don’t put a category on you – we’re all storytellers.’”

Accepting the induction on behalf of her late mother following an introduction by Rivers’ friend Chris Hardwick, the comic’s daughter Melissa Rivers unveiled an acceptance speech she said her mother had penned before her passing in the expectation that could be read posthumously.

“She said to me, ‘They’ll never give me an award while I’m alive and I don’t know why,’” said Melissa. “I told her it was because she had alienated half the town and insulted the other half. So she left a generic acceptance speech so she could accept and award from anyone, any time, anywhere.”

But turning more serious, Rivers noted, “Ever since she was a child, my mother felt out of place, that she didn’t belong, and spent her life feeling like she was on the outside looking in, until she got into television, where she found her place, her people – her home.”

Rivers felt the Hall of Fame honor would have filled her mother’s heart “with pride and brought a tear to her eye – assuming she had not had Botox the day before and her tear ducts were not totally frozen.”

Christopher, who was introduced by “Frasier” co-creator David Lee and actually handled the production design for the very first Hall of Fame ceremony in 1984, said he never expected to receive such an award but “if this my 15 minutes, I’m enjoying it immensely.”

“Tonight I’d like to think in some small way I represent all of the production designers, art directors, assistant art directors, set decorators, lighting designers,” Christopher added. “All those amazing people that give our productions their sense of place, character and style, and I’m proud to be among them.”

 

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