Matt LeBlanc says when both he and former high school buddy Louis C.K. were vying for lead comedy actor last year as Jim Parsons’ name was announced at the Emmy ceremony, they looked at each other and mouthed, “You suck!”
Perhaps this year, both C.K. and LeBlanc’s chances have increased since the incumbent is out of play.
“Not me. That’s the name that will be called,” says LeBlanc with a good-natured laugh. “I focus on my work and I’m proud of my show and the writers getting nominated, but it gets a little surreal every year getting nominated. We only have one more season, so maybe the last time’s the charm.”
Whoever takes the lead comedy actor trophy this year will be a first-time winner in the category since four-time winner Parsons was not nominated. So it could finally be the year for C.K. (FX’s “Louie”), LeBlanc or Don Cheadle (Showtime’s “Episodes” and “House of Lies,” respectively), after years of drought. Or one of the newcomers, like Will Forte (“The Last Man on Earth”) or Anthony Anderson (“Blackish”), could sneak in and snatch it away.
In the lead actor drama category, five of the six nominees have never won for their roles. So a long-time nominee like Jon Hamm of AMC’s “Mad Men” could face off for the win against a newcomer like Bob Odenkirk of the cabler’s “Better Call Saul.”
“Someone who has just broken on the scene and is getting a lot of buzz will often win over a good but too-familiar actor,” says TV historian Tim Brooks (“The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946 to Present”). “Sometimes it goes to a sentimental favorite, but that’s usually if there isn’t a shiny penny that year.”
Brooks says much like politicians, there’s an incumbency advantage. “Once you’re designated as great you’ve got a good chance to repeat, as with Jim Parsons in the comedy category, and Bryan Cranston in drama shutting out others.”
While this is the first year both Forte and Anderson have been nominated and the first year for Jeffery Tambor’s role in a freshman series (Amazon’s “Transparent”), the rest of the field has been toiling for years on their series. William H. Macy has played his “Shameless” (Showtime) character for five years with two nominations. LeBlanc was nominated three times for his role on “Friends,’’ and has been a contender four times for “Episodes.”
For five years running, C.K. has been nominated for “Louie.” He has racked up 35 nominations in his career and won five times, but never for acting. And Cheadle has been nominated the past four years for “House of Lies.”
“Ultimately the nominations are important for what it does for all our projects,” Cheadle says. “It’s hard to compare what Jeffrey Tambor does to what Matt LeBlanc is doing, or what Louis C.K. does. We are fortunate to be singled out, but to take it more seriously than that is foolhardy.”
Tambor’s a veteran of Emmy nominations, although this is his first for “Transparent,” which latched onto the zeitgeist in this tale of an older man who decides to come out as transgender — and did it almost a full year before the world heard of Caitlyn Jenner.
“We have plugged into the public consciousness,” Tambor says. “As soon as I read the script, I threw myself at them because I knew this was the part of a lifetime. I’m 71, and these roles don’t just come to me. And then to be doing it on Amazon, well, that’s exciting to be part of at my age or any age.”
One thing for sure, being a front-runner doesn’t always pay off. Steve Carell was snubbed for all six years he was nominated for “The Office.” Few people would dispute the groundbreaking genius of “Seinfeld,” yet Jerry Seinfeld was never given the golden statue despite five consecutive nominations. Ed O’Neill, who will forever be remembered as Al Bundy and is an integral part of the hit “Modern Family,” has never won an Emmy.
It took Ted Danson seven consecutive nominations before getting an Emmy for his work as Sam Malone on “Cheers.” Which may not bode well for the veterans in this group.
“Without an incumbent, or someone going out after a long run or a sentimental favorite or a show that really captured the zeitgeist, you have a wide open competition,” says David Bushman, television curator for the Paley Center for Media. “There was no reason why Ted Danson wasn’t winning as one of the greatest characters in TV history, but once these actors don’t win it becomes its own animal. It’s criminal that Jon Hamm hasn’t won; inexplicable.”
These days it is impossible to talk about lead drama actor nominees without discussing the lack of Emmy wins for Hamm, who has created one of the most iconic characters on television. But hope springs eternal for those who see a final season win for the “Mad Men” poster boy. This category has six nominees, with only Jeff Daniels (HBO’s “Newsroom”) poised to win twice for his role.
This year’s contender Kyle Chandler (Netflix’s “Bloodline”) already beat out Hamm for an Emmy as Coach Eric Taylor on the final season of “Friday Night Lights,” the year that perennial winner Cranston wasn’t eligible. But the edge might go to Odenkirk, who grew his “Breaking Bad” supporting character into the lead on “Better Call Saul” and is best known for his sketch comedy. Others in this category are Liev Schreiber of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” and Kevin Spacey of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” earning his third consecutive nod for the role of Francis Underwood.
“Look, every year more people don’t win than win, that’s just the ratio,” deadpans Odenkirk. “It’s a win for us all because it’s a first year show that is really a weird genreless experiment with a sketch comedy guy in the lead. But I hope no one votes for me because I’m new, because that would just be silly.”
Oddly enough, in the lead actor for limited series or movie category, two of the contenders have the distinction of never being nominated for an Emmy before and being the youngest Oscar winners in their respective Academy categories. Timothy Hutton won supporting actor in 1980 for “Ordinary People” and Adrien Brody for lead actor for 2002’s “The Pianist.”
Hutton just laughs it off. “That’s a fun fact, but I don’t think it’s going to carry much weight with the voters,’’ Hutton says. “But I will say this is an exciting time to be in television, because the most interesting stories with the greatest risks are being made.”
While Hutton plays one of the main characters in a large ensemble cast on ABC limited series “American Crime,” Brody was the main focus and title character of History’s “Houdini.”
“Houdini meant a great deal to me because he was the closest thing to a hero I had as a child, outside of my parents,” Brody says. “Much like ‘The Pianist,’ it was a total immersion into the role for me, and to perfect the stunts and tackle the acting challenges proved very strenuous.”
The limited series/movie category mixes both comedic and dramatic performances, and five of the nominees — Hutton, Brody, David Oyelowo, Richard Jenkins and Mark Rylance (of HBO’s “Nightingale,” “Olive Kitteridge’’ and “Wolf Hall,” respectively) — are first-time Emmy contenders. The lone Emmy winner in the category, Ricky Gervais (Netflix’s “Derek: The Special”), was also nominated last year in the lead actor comedy category for the same role.
New blood, old blood, it’s still just a guess as to how the Emmy voters will go.
“Even Bryan Cranston only won four out of six times he was nominated for Walter White, so you wonder why he didn’t win six out of six,” says Paley Center’s Bushman. “The problem is that it’s difficult to get inside the mind of the Emmy voter.”