Returning Emmy actor contenders

Past winners or nominees remain in the running

Alec Baldwin
’30 Rock’
The seven-time Emmy nominee finally took home an award last year, and the show — and Baldwin’s lovably pompous network exec — remain more popular than ever. Teaming Baldwin with Alan Alda (playing Jack’s biological father) was a great gambit that paid off with some of the year’s funniest moments.

Gabriel Byrne
“In Treatment”
Listening to the complaints of Hope Davis’ narcissistic character should be enough for a nomination by itself, but Byrne was compelling in season two just as he was last year, when he made the best actor final cut. His work with Alison Pill, playing a young cancer patient seeking parental affection, was especially brilliant.

Steve Carell
‘The Office’
The three-time nominee continues finding new ways to make the world’s worst boss seem human. And, hey, if the Michael Scott Paper Co. can humble Dunder Mifflin, maybe Carell can finally take home the Emmy this year.

Bryan Cranston
‘Breaking Bad’
Voters couldn’t resist the mix of terminal illness and crime, giving the veteran Cranston a well-deserved Emmy last year. The show’s longer and even more brilliant second season has upped the ante, giving Cranston more opportunities to burrow deeper into the mind of a mild-mannered man taking his terminal diagnosis to frightening extremes.

Michael Emerson
The series may have confounded fans over the years, but there’s never been any confusion or complaints about Emerson’s masterful work as the calculating Ben, a role that began as a guest shot and has turned into one of the show’s most popular characters. Can’t wait to see how he plans to wrest control of the island castaways in the upcoming final season.

Michael C. Hall
A record number of viewers tuned into the finale of the series’ third season, adding momentum to Hall’s nom last year. His character’s exploits have only furthered the question of how many men have killed someone the night before their weddings. (And it wasn’t even a prospective in-law.) He has long evaporated any typecasting from “Six Feet Under.”

Jon Hamm
‘Mad Men’
Hamm received a wave of glowing publicity and a nom for the first season of “Mad Men,” and he added new layers of quiet desperation to his ad man’s pursuit of happiness in the show’s second go-around — proof that subtlety can be spellbinding.

Neil Patrick Harris
‘How I Met Your Mother’
This year, Harris’ womanizing Barney got his own book, “The Bro Code,” and he opened his heart to Robin (Cobie Smulders). The show and the character seem to be hitting their stride, so there’s no reason Harris can’t add a third straight nom and possibly a first-time win.

Hugh Laurie
The series remains creatively strong, and a recent Harris poll put Laurie’s antisocial doctor right there with Oprah, Ellen, Letterman and Leno as TV’s most popular personalities. (Outside of Letterman, House would hate the company.) Will a fourth nom translate into his first win?

Denis Leary
‘Rescue Me’
This season’s Sept. 11-related storyline could catapult the show and Leary’s intense acting back into voters’ consciousness. The TV Acad certainly likes him — he earned a nom last year for HBO telepic “Recount”; now it’s just a matter of how steep is the competition.

Christopher Meloni
‘Law & Order’
Though he’s only been nominated once, Meloni’s value to the “Law & Order” franchise can’t be understated. The fact that “SVU” is a procedural might hurt his chances come awards season, but it doesn’t detract from his performances on a weekly basis.

Jeremy Piven
Piven has won the Emmy three years running and is a TV Acad fave, playing a character voters know. If President Obama remains obsessed with the show, Piven’s chances can’t be discounted.

Tony Shalhoub
It may seem like Shalhoub’s popularity has finally passed after six noms and three wins, but don’t bet against him. There’s a reason voters love his OCD-afflicted character, and what’s succeeded before can certainly work magic again.

Charlie Sheen
‘Two and a Half Men’
Nominated for the last three years, Sheen is finally being recognized as a vital component of a show that does nothing but generate solid laughs and continues to reign supreme as the most watched sitcom on television. Some may think Sheen isn’t stretching his acting chops, but that’s just because he’s so good at what he does.

John Slattery
‘Mad Men’
Slattery earned an Emmy nom and a subsequent GQ spread playing the agency boss long on both loathsomeness and charm, and this season he didn’t have to have a heart attack to get noticed. “Mad Men” is chock full of terrific supporting turns, and he’s a worthy as anyone.