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Emmy Lead Actress Categories Have Unusual History

Category offers no shortage of shocks and pleasures

You’d think the past can’t surprise you, but traveling through the past 40 years of lead actress Emmys yields one “Did this really happen?” moment  after another.

It can’t be only me, for example, taken aback that NBC’s The Golden Girls won three consecutive lead comedy actress awards — with three different actresses. From 1986-88, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Bea Arthur pulled off the feat, one unlikely ever to be repeated.

And nothing against Jane Curtin, a beloved favorite from Saturday Night Live to 3rd Rock From the Sun, but if I had to pick the only two-time lead comedy actress winner of the 1980s, I would have guessed Shelley Long (Cheers), who won in 1983 before Curtin took the next two kudos in ’84 and ’85.

As much diversity as there was in the 1980s, with nine different winners in 10 years, Candice Bergen’s 1989 Emmy for Murphy Brown ushered in an era of individual dominance. Bergen won five lead comedy actress Emmys in a seven-year stretch, interrupted by Kirstie Alley (Cheers, 1991) and Roseanne Arnold (Roseanne, 1993), before Helen Hunt closed out the decade with four consecutive triumphs for Mad About You.

It’s also hard not to be struck by CBS’ dominance in the 1970s, reflective of its lineup of all-time comedy greats. From 1971-78, not only did CBS win every lead comedy actress Emmy (three each for Mary Tyler Moore and Jean Stapleton, one apiece for Valerie Harper and Arthur), but every nominee was an Eye liner except Marlo Thomas of ABC’s That Girl (1971), Lee Grant of NBC’s Fay (1976) and Cathryn Damon and Katherine Helmond of ABC’s Soap (1978).

Ending CBS’ streak of winners was Ruth Gordon, who won in 1979 for a role in ABC’s Taxi that in later years would have been classified as a guest performance. That same year, Mariette Hartley took lead drama actress honors for her work in a two-hour season premiere of … wait for it … The Incredible Hulk. The TV Academy didn’t respond immediately by cementing the guest category, but the pair of wins certainly drew attention to the issue.

In any case, the Academy wasn’t shy about crowning repeat lead actress winners on the drama side. Michael Learned won two years in a row and three out of four in the mid-1970s for The Waltons, before coming back to score again in 1982 for Nurse. But that was mere prelude to the takeover by Cagney & Lacey, which took the next six awards in the category: four for Tyne Daly (1983-85, 1988) sandwiching a back-to-back showing by Sharon Gless (1986-87).

Among other things, the combination helped make Veronica Hamel of Hill Street Blues an Emmy bridesmaid five times running, although that’s child’s play compared with the 12 consecutive years, from 1985-96, that Angela Lansbury was nominated without winning for Murder (say it in Pat Summerall’s baritone), She Wrote.

Looking back at Emmy days gone by, it’s almost strangely heartwarming to see the back-to-back nominations for Kate Jackson in Charlie’s Angels from 1977-78 — a reminder that even so-called Jiggle TV couldn’t be completely dismissed. Yes, it really happened.

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