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Ellen Burstyn Recalls First Emmy Win, Missing Her Oscar Moment

Ellen Burstyn First Emmy win
REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/Newscom

Ellen Burstyn received her first Emmy nom in 1981 for the telepic “The People vs. Jean Harris.” She finally won nearly 30 years later for a guest spot on “Law & Order: SVU.” With three noms during that span, and three more since (including one this year as Robin Wright’s steely mother on “House of Cards”), the Oscar- and Tony-winner is clearly a TV Academy favorite.

What are your memories of winning that first Emmy?
When you’re a guest on a series you don’t get your award at the ceremony. You go to the kiddie table. Then when you get an award, you get to be a presenter on the big show. I was sitting next to Carol Burnett, we were both nominated. When they called my name I hugged her as though she would be happy for me. When I thought about it later, I thought “That was a little inappropriate.” But she’s such a wonderful warm person, it was spontaneous. I liked [winning]. I had a Tony and an Oscar and a British Academy Award, but I didn’t have an Emmy. And I really wanted one because I believe in a full set.

And what stands out about going to the primetime show that year?
Being on the red carpet with Michael [J. Fox], standing next to each other, and a billion flashbulbs popping in our face, so we were blinded. I said, “I don’t think this can be good for our brains, do you?” And he said, “I’m sure not.” We had that conversation underneath our smiles for the cameras.

You were famously Emmy-nominated for a 14-second performance in the HBO movie “Mrs. Harris.” What are your thoughts on it now?
It was a weird thing and how do you understand a weird thing? It happened and I thought it was kind of funny. I kept saying, “If I work really hard can I get an Emmy for not appearing at all?” What surprised me is how that became part of my Wikipedia bio. I’ve lived a long successful life and that’s what stands out? But it was flattering if you think about it. People voted, whether they saw it or not, assuming I did a good job.

When you won an Oscar for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” you weren’t able to attend. Why?
I was doing “Same Time, Next Year” on Broadway. I would miss one performance and the producer would let me out and have the understudy go on. But it was a very successful show and people waited a long time to get tickets, and I thought if they’re paying a lot of money to come see the show they read about and see an understudy, wonderful actress as she was, it just didn’t seem fair. I kept wrestling with it and saying, “Should I go or should I not go?” I finally said to myself, “What do you honor most, the work or the reward?” I had to pick the work. It seemed like the right thing at the time. Since then, I’m not sure it was [laughs].

Have your feelings on attending award shows changed over the years?
I always have divided feelings. On one hand, it’s fun to see other people. When I won [an Emmy] for “Political Animals,” Louis C.K. was there and I had just done his show. He was nominated and it was fun, after we worked together, to be at the same awards. I’m not a party-goer or someone who likes crowds and the events, I’m a person who prefer to have dinner with a few friends. It’s always a little bit of a strain to pretend like I’m having a really good time. There’s something about the “look at me” aspect — “whose dress are you wearing?” — that has a kind of false ring to me. But on the other hand, I’d rather be nominated and be there than be home watching on television wondering why I wasn’t.