How the Emmy’s Guest Category Has Changed Through the Years

When it comes to the race to win an Emmy, there will be a collective buzz around the award’s 60+ categories until Sept. 15 when we find out who gets the gold.

Arguably one of the most highly competitive awards doesn’t happen at the main event but the weekend before at the Creative Arts ceremony. That’s when the winners in the four guest performer categories (which include guest actor and actress in both comedy and drama genres) are awarded for a one-time or re-curring role. (Think Jamie Lee Curtis’ two-episode performance on FX’s “The Bear” — a likely candidate.)

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In looking back at early precursors, this award has quite a checkered past with numerous category name changes and head-scratching nominee groupings over the years. For example, in 1977, the bracket was called outstanding single appearance in a comedy or drama series. There was no separation by genre, so nominees included Eileen Heckart in CBS’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Nancy Walker for CBS’s “Rhoda” facing off against Cicely Tyson, Sandy Duncan and Olivia Cole from ABC’s “Roots,” with Cole taking home the trophy. That category iteration ended in 1978. When it returned in 1986, it was retitled outstanding guest performer.

At that time, while genre was separated, gender was not. That meant when John Lithgow won in 1986 for NBC’s “Amazing Stories” in the drama category, he beat out Edward Herrmann (NBC’s “St. Elsewhere”), James Stacy (CBS’s “Cagney & Lacey”), Peggy McCay (“Cagney & Lacey”) and Whoopi Goldberg (ABC’s “Moonlighting”). That version of the award lasted until 1989, when both genre and gender were separated, which is how it’s remained since.

Eligibility changes have been ever-shifting to this day. “It was one of those situations in which the board was constantly refining it,” recalls former TV Academy senior vice president of awards John Leverence.
Despite any behind-the-scenes drama regarding the category, it remains fascinating due to the eclectic mix of talent it attracts. According to Bradley Whitford, guest actor winner for Amazon Prime Video’s “Transparent” in 2015 and again for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 2019, the appeal for the performer is to have the opportunity to “spice up some chili that’s already hot,” he says, referencing shows that are at the top of their creative game.

“The experiences I had, and why this category is often very tough, is that these are shows that are really working,” he says.

Case in point, top talent over the years who left with trophies following a brief stop at a much-lauded show include Sally Field (2001, NBC’s “ER”), Gene Wilder (2003, NBC’s “Will & Grace”) and Sharon Stone (2004, ABC’s “The Practice”).

“It’s always the [category] that everyone assumes is just going to go to whoever the biggest name is, generally,” says Carrie Preston, who competed in the drama guest category in 2013 against Jane Fonda (HBO’s “The Newsroom”), Joan Cusack (Showtime’s “Shameless”), Diana Rigg (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), Linda Cardellini (AMC’s “Mad Men”) and Margo Martindale (FX’s “The Americans”). Ultimately, Preston took home the prize for playing Elsbeth Tascioni on CBS’s “The Good Wife.”

“I still don’t feel like my feet have touched the ground … and it’s been 11 years!” she says. That win clearly helped Preston’s character become the gift that keeps on giving to her, since the quirky attorney continued to recur on “The Good Wife” along with its Paramount+ spinoff “The Good Fight” and, in February, successfully launched in her own series aptly titled “Elsbeth” on CBS. “Maybe that 2013 episode was a way to see what it would be like to center a show around Elsbeth,” she says.

Career boosts also come from a guest win, especially for someone not particularly familiar to television audiences. That’s tough to imagine when you think of Lithgow who, to date, has 13 Emmy nominations and six wins. However, when he won his first Emmy in 1986 for NBC’s “Amazing Stories,” the actor was known more for Broadway and Oscar-nominated roles in “The World According to Garp” (1983) and “Terms of Endearment” (1984).

“I was still very much a newcomer to Hollywood,” he says of that time, though taking home TV’s biggest honor shifted his status. “It’s just a matter of adding the number of awards. You’ve gotten a Tony and Emmy so from that point on, people throw around that phrase and that’s a nice thing to carry around with you. It’s like a merit badge that you’ve won,” he says. (Lithgow went on to win in this category again in 2010 for Showtime’s “Dexter.”)

Also helpful is going against type, which Nick Offerman, the drama category’s most recent winner, can attest to. Primarily known for comedy roles like the beloved Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” he took on something completely different in 2023’s heavy post-apocalyptic drama “The Last of Us.”

Offerman played Bill, a man contentedly living a solitary life until he meets and falls in love with another man, Frank (Murray Bartlett). Their love story, seen over their years until their joint death, struck a chord with audiences and the industry. “The reaction to the episode was a crazy tsunami,” Offerman fondly recalls, adding that since his Emmy win, he has seen a spike in scripts and job offers. “It’s like I’m still driving the same truck, but they put a special wax on it this time at the car wash.”

The only thing more compelling than the award itself is the fact that “this [category] is something that has [always] been influx with change,” says Leverence.

For example, in 2015, eligibility by the Academy was capped to a guest star’s appearance on a series be no more than 50% of total episodes. Additionally, the minimum amount of “stand-alone and contiguous-screen time” for eligibility was set at 5% of the total runtime of the episode submitted.

While 5% doesn’t sound like much, it impacted Netflix’s “The Crown” for potential nominees who appeared in its 72-minute final episode. Under this new rule, guest Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth II in the drama’s first two seasons) is eligible based on her screentime, while fellow guest Olivia Colman (Seasons 3 and 4’s queen) had a total screentime that fell short of that 5%. Ironically, if this rule was in place in 2021 when Foy won in this category, she would’ve gone home empty-handed due to insufficient screentime.

Moving forward, we can count on award category changes across the board to continue, but they’ll inevitably be overshadowed by our insatiable interest of who takes home an Emmy and sees their career impacted — or in six-time winner Lithgow’s case, whose trophy comes in handy at home. “I needed six doorstops on the second floor of our house,” he says with a smile. “I have to have a sense of humor about these things.”

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