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Emmys: Why Some Iconic Performances Don’t Win

Perception isn’t always the same as reality. That’s true in life, and it’s certainly true in Emmys

Perception isn’t always the same as reality. That’s true in life, and it’s certainly true in Emmys.

Many people think that Jon Hamm has won an Emmy for “Mad Men.” Not true. But the show’s four consecutive victories in drama series make people assume everyone with the “Mad Men” universe has been honored, including all the actors and costume designers. Oddly, none of them have.

Hamm is an especially interesting case, because he’s helped make a household name the character that evokes a certain style of man, clothing and era. Op-ed pieces talk about the Don Draper syndrome, fashion pages talk about the Don Draper look. But is it possible Hamm’s shutout is not despite his iconic work, but because of it?

Exhibit A: Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing, Bill Cosby as Dr. Cliff Huxtable, Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones, Jerry Orbach as Lennie Briscoe, Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, Garry Shandling as Larry Sanders and Stephen Colbert as Stephen Colbert. All of them nominated, but none have won.

Exhibit B, work that was not even nominated: John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy,  Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright, Dave Chappelle on “Chappelle’s Show,” S. Epatha Merkerson on “Law & Order,” and let’s not forget David Tennant and Matt Smith as Doctor Who.

However, there were definitive blendings of actor and role who did end up in the winners circle, including Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker and James Gandolfini and Edie Falco as Tony and Carmela Soprano.

Why do some win while others don’t? In the Emmy world, one factor is repetition. With a film role, you usually have only one chance; with TV, you get nominated multiple times for indelible work. So a lot of the classic characterizations (Bea Arthur, E.G. Marshall, Ed Asner, Peter Falk, Ray Romano, etc.) did not win regularly, but they did win, sooner or later.

And often it’s that indefinable buzz. HBO’s “Oz” never gained enough Emmy love. In its entire run “The Wire” earned a meager two nominations for writing (winning neither) but was recently voted by Entertainment Weekly as the greatest series of all time, echoing the 2006 pronouncement by Brian Lowry of Variety that it is “one of the most demanding and thought-provoking series ever to grace television.”

“NCIS,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Treme,” “The Walking Dead” as best series? Nope. The list goes on and on.

But the main culprit might simply be the other contenders. Jackie Gleason, for example, lost to Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko, another classic perf. In Nimoy’s case: Don Knotts as Barney Fife. Can’t argue with that one either, despite Emmy’s odd practice in those days of lumping all supporting work together.

These mysterious twists of awards fate are hardly limited to Emmy. When you talk about iconic performances, the film world has given us Sean Connery as James Bond, Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. None was even nominated for an Oscar.

Does Hamm lose sleep over the Emmys? Let’s hope not. Should we lose sleep on his behalf? It’s hard to pity someone who’s talented, is liked and respected, who looks that great, does a lot of philanthropic work and who has a long career ahead of him.

This column isn’t really for him; it’s for all of you contenders, in all the endless categories. Four-fifths of you will go home empty-handed. So if you feel slighted, think about Mr. Hamm (who, fingers crossed, will win this year, but maybe not). Think about Greta Garbo, Peter O’Toole, Barbara Stanwyck and Steve McQueen, who never won Oscars. Think about all those poor suckers who work for years in good TV shows but never manage to even get nominated. Think of your fellow nominees who were shut out. Think about yourself, and realize that even if you go home empty-handed, you can tell people that you won, and sooner or later they will believe you.

As we said, it’s all a matter of reality vs. perception.

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