There is a spirited debate in the forums about whether Angela Bassett of "ER" should put herself forward in the lead or supporting category at this year's Emmy Awards. The Oscar-nominated actress ("What's Love Got to Do With It") has joined the cast of the NBC medical drama as attending physician Cate Banfield for the final season of its 15-year run. Were she to get a lead nod and then win, Angela Bassett would make Emmy history as the first African American actress to prevail for a regular lead role on a drama series.
"ER" has won 22 of its record 122 Emmy nominations. However, only one of those Emmys went to a series regular — Julianna Margulies as supporting actress for the first season in 1995. And the last series regular to be nominated was Maura Tierney in that same category in 2001. But, as forum moderator Darrin "DoubleD" Dortch points out, "'ER's' buzz has skyrocketed. Since this has been a relatively dim TV season for series television, I'm wondering if 'ER' will score some major nods after years of being ignored." While some disagree with his assessment of the quality of other shows, other forum posters build on his theory.
Poster lovemyshowGIRL sums up the history of African American women in the lead races at the Emmys. Only one — Isabel Sanford — has won for lead actress in a comedy series. She did that in 1981 on the third of her seven consecutive nods for "The Jeffersons." And just three others have been nominated for lead actress in a comedy series: Diahann Carroll for "Julia" in 1969, Nell Carter for "Gimme a Break" in 1982 and 1983, and Phylicia Rashad for "The Cosby Show" in 1985 and 1986.
While Rashad was the last African American actress to contend for comedy series lead actress, her sister — Debbie Allen — was the first to be nominated for lead actress in a drama series. She earned four consecutive nods for "Fame" from 1982 to 1985. In the first year, she lost to Michael Learned, who won for the single season of "Nurse." For each of the next three years, Tyne Daly of "Cagney & Lacey" prevailed.
In 1986, Alfre Woodard picked up the third of her eventual 15 Emmy nominations with her sole bid for lead actress in a drama series for her work on "St. Elsewhere." She lost to the other half of "Cagney & Lacey" Sharon Gless.
Three years earlier, Woodard had become only the second African-American woman to prevail in the supporting actress drama series category with her win for "Hill Street Blues." The first was Gail Fisher who won this award in 1970 for her work as the loyal secretary on "Mannix." Madge Sinclair won this award in 1991 for "Gabriel's Fire" as did Mary Alice for "I'll Fly Away" in 1993. Jackee Harry remains the only African American woman to win the supporting comedy race with her 1987 victory for "227."
The star of the heartwarming family drama "I'll Fly Away" Regina Taylor was a lead actress nominee in 1992 and 1993. First she lost to Dana Delany for "China Beach" and then to "Picket Fences" star Kathy Baker. Baker also edged out the most recent African American woman to be nominated for lead actress in a drama series — Cicely Tyson for "Sweet Justice" — in 1995. Ironically, Tyson had been the first African American actress to win an Emmy for a leading role with the groundbreaking 1974 telefilm "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."