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June 02, 2010

Why is Lithgow competing for a guest star Emmy?

Dexter-john-lithgow-trinity-killer Awards_175_revisedBy Randee Dawn

Some of this year’s most intense TV performances have come from non-regulars on series. But as Emmy nomination ballots go live on the TV Academy website Friday, should these performances have been submitted in the "guest star" or "supporting actor" categories?

John Lithgow is a case in point. He appeared in nearly every episode of Season 4 of Showtime's "Dexter" as the Trinity Killer. But he's submitting himself in the “Guest Actor” category.

The decision was Lithgow’s, according to Showtime. “With John, it was very simple and declarative," says the net's Richard Licata. "He declared he was  a guest star and said he didn’t want to get in the way of his 'Dexter’ colleagues who may be going in other categories.”

It's a tricky decision for some of the big names who join hit shows. Kathleen Turner on “Californication” and Lily Tomlin on “Damages” both appeared on ten episodes each; Michael Sheen (“30 Rock”)
and Sharon Stone (“Law & Order: SVU”) have shown up on four episodes, while “SVU” gave one single episode to actors like Eric McCormack and Stephen Rea. Yet each of them will be hoping for a “Guest Actor” nomination, and length of stay on a show doesn’t seem to have much bearing: Last year saw winners who earned Emmys for five episodes (Michael J. Fox, “Rescue Me”), a single appearance (Ellen Burstyn, “SVU”; Justin Timberlake and Tina Fey, both for “Saturday Night Live”).

Perhaps like Lithgow, those who worked in multiple episodes didn’t want to steal thunder from their co-stars. But it’s a strategic move, too. Emmy voters tend to pick the same nominees year after year in many categories. A one-timer might have a better chance of making it through in the guest category.

And billing matters too. While anyone can submit as a supporting or lead actor, Emmy doors are only open in the “Guest Actor” category if an actor was billed in the show as a guest performer. After that, it’s entirely the choice of the performer.

One actor who won’t have to worry about going up against Lithgow, however, is Chris Noth, who was billed as a guest performer throughout the first season of CBS' “The Good Wife.” He’s decided to upsell his performance, and with good reason. He’s clearly more of a key supporting player in that series than a guest. Whether Emmy voters see it the same way will be determined when noms are announced on July 8.

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