In 1999, when NAACP chairman Kweisi Mfume famously called for a boycott of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC because none of their new fall shows featured non-white leads, he managed, at the very least, to force network execs at the Big Four to question their roles in promoting diversity.
Producer David Simon, whose HBO series “The Corner” and “The Wire” have featured large, predominantly black casts, recalls the industry spin after Mfume’s boycott.
“You’d hear studio executives or programmers talking about how they’d love to put more minority actors on mainstream shows, but there just wasn’t the talent pool,” he says. “You liars! Between ‘The Corner’ and ‘The Wire,’ there were guys we didn’t take — our second and third choices on some of these roles — who were incredible. There’s an enormous reservoir out there.”
“I think the networks are trying to diversify their lineups, but that’s different than the Emmy awards nominating actors (of color),” says George Lopez, the star of his eponymously titled sitcom on ABC. “These are two different subjects. When you start to recognize shows with people of color, only then can you change the way the nominations are going. It’s not ‘Father Knows Best’ versus ‘The Danny Thomas Show’ anymore. Now we have shows that are led and driven by actors of color, so it’s time.”
If the well received “George Lopez” show represents a beacon of diversity for some, others argue that there’s not enough programming featuring casts of color, or the shows that do exist aren’t Emmy-caliber. For every “Wire” and “Boston Public,” there were the kind of sitcoms featured on UPN and the WB that, while making strides in going after a more racially diverse demographic, have perpetuated stereotypes, according to critics of such series.
Less than two years after Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Oscar’s top acting honors, some perspective on Emmy history might be in order.
Emmy’s biggest moment for any actor of color was a jaw-dropping four decades ago, when Bill Cosby had three straight wins from 1966-68 for his lead role on “I Spy.” (Harry Belafonte broke the color barrier in 1960, but for a one-shot special.) Since then, only a handful have been so honored. Robert Guillaume is the only black actor to win for lead in a comedy for “Benson” (though Cosby would surely have won several trophies in this category if he hadn’t declined to be nominated for “The Cosby Show”).
Isabel Sanford (“The Jeffersons”) is the only black comedy actress winner. James Earl Jones (“Gabriel’s Fire”) and Andre Braugher (“Homicide”) won drama actor Emmys in the ’90s, but every drama actress winner has been white.
There also have been a small number of non-white winners in other categories — Cicely Tyson has won a couple for movie and miniseries work and, before her historic Oscar win, Halle Berry took the Emmy stage for her work in “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” — but overall, non-white actors still have trouble being nominated, let alone win.
When Bernie Mac was nominated for lead actor in a comedy last year, he was the first black actor in the category since Tim Reid, who was nominated 15 years earlier for “Frank’s Place.” Phylicia Rashad in 1986 was the last non-white nominee for lead comedy actress (“The Cosby Show”). In 1983, Regina Taylor (“I’ll Fly Away”) was the last non-white nominee for lead drama actress.
“Look at the number of black people who are working in the business today,” says Reid. “When I started on ‘WKRP’ and they held a convention for blacks in primetime in comedy and drama, they could fit us into a minivan. Now there are literally hundreds of people working in television.”
The past couple of years have seen the networks tap into this reservoir and the talent just might start tipping the Emmy scales in this and the next few years. On the comedy side, ABC has Lopez and Damon Wayans headlining sitcoms. Fox has Bernie Mac, Wanda Sykes and Cedric the Entertainer (and this fall will produce laffers starring Luis Guzman and Cheech Marin); and NBC has shows featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Tracy Morgan lined up for next season.
Chi McBride (“Boston Public”) may be the only black lead in a drama series right now (and his name has been noticeably absent when the Emmy noms have been announced the past three years), but some are hedging their Emmy bets on Dennis Haysbert and Penny Johnson Jerald (portraying the president and first lady on “24”); Mykelti Williamson (“Boomtown”); and CCH Pounder (“The Shield”).
Whether this volume leads to a surge in Emmy noms remains to be seen. Yet even as the landscape changes in the acting field, there are some actors who increasingly believe race has nothing to do with the nominations.
“People vote for who they like,” McBride says. “Jackie Gleason never won an Emmy. The fact that I’m the only black lead on (network) TV in a drama series says something, but Bernie Mac’s going to get nominated every year, obviously people like what he’s doing.”
“There was always a blue-ribbon panel of people who did the nominating and they were experts in the field,” says Debbie Allen, herself a three-time Emmy winner for her choreography on “Fame,” who was also nominated four times for acting on the show. “These days, it’s such a popularity contest. Everything is about business and the ratings, it might not really have anything to do with the quality or uniqueness of the work. The playing field is so different, there are huge campaigns now. Year after year, the same show can win.”
“I’m amazed at what it takes to get these nominations,” adds CCH Pounder, a two-time Emmy nominee (“ER” and “The X-Files”). “Now that I see the machinery behind it, the PR and the box sets of CDs, I don’t know how I got nominated at all. I wasn’t even asked to do an interview with a local paper. In terms of whether it’s more difficult for actors of color (to get nominated), I would imagine that it’s important for the people who do the nominating to go with the character that’s most recognizable to the public. Quite often, that’s not necessarily the character in the so-called diversity box.”
And yet blacks have had better luck than other ethnic groups. Desi Arnaz was the only cast member of “I Love Lucy” not nominated for an acting award, a dubious omission if ever there was one. Latinos who have made it to Emmy’s nom roster for series work include Rita Moreno (“9 to 5,” “The Rockford Files”), Elena Verdugo (“Marcus Welby, M.D.”), Jimmy Smits (“NYPD Blue”) and last year’s Freddie Rodriguez (“Six Feet Under”).
Sadly, the case is most dire for Asians and American Indians, who have no nominations for series work to speak of.
“I try not to take it personally,” says Ming-Na (“ER”), one of the few Asian regulars anywhere in series television, “because a lot of times it really is about economics. The faster minority communities have their say, or, even better, get more involved in the writing aspect, or the producing and directing sides of it, the faster progress will come. It’s not just about acting, it’s about having a hand in the whole thing.”
“I don’t think the situation gets enough credit for getting better because the numbers are still low,” Lopez says. “But it’s been improving and is much better than in year’s past. With my show, we’ve probably thrown the curve way off in terms of the number of minorities cast in one show. But the Emmys have gone through years and years of doing the same thing, they’ve been conditioned, and when change comes, it’s going to come slowly.”
(Ginny Chien contributed to this report.)
The following is a selection of non-white candidates on top-rated primetime series: