TV’s 14 Most Talented Actors of All Time

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If someone asked you to name the actor or actress with the most Emmy wins, who would you guess? Jon Hamm? James Gandolfini? Bryan Cranston? Angela Lansbury? None of those is correct, actually. In fact, Hamm and Lansbury have never won. (Lansbury has a whopping 18 nominations and no wins.)

The following are the performers with the most Emmys for acting. (Tracey Ullman, for instance, has 7 Emmys, but some are for writing, directing, and producing.) Notice how the names of the awards changed frequently — sometimes in consecutive years.

Ed Asner: 7

Asner, perhaps best known to younger audiences as the square-headed, bespectacled old man in Up, was the master of comedic timing. His articulate way of speaking was integral to his sharp delivery on Mary Tyler Moore, which lived and died on its acerbic wit. Contrary to the grumpy old man he plays in Up, Asner was a great team player on MTM, bickering and riffing with his co-players with finesse.

  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, 1980: Lou Grant
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, 1978: Lou Grant
  • Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Series, 1977: Roots
  • Outstanding Lead Actor for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series, 1976: Rich Man, Poor Man
  • Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 1975: Mary Tyler Moore
  • Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 1972: Mary Tyler Moore
  • Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 1971: Mary Tyler Moore

Cloris Leachman: 6

Leachman was described in a 2010 New York Times piece as having “boundless enthusiasm.” As the grandmother in Malcolm in the Middle, Leachman speaks with an unplaceable but distinct accent, blowing smoke from her cigarette and berating her family in ways that make the rest of the bizarre family painfully sympathetic.

  • Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, 2006: Malcolm in the Middle
  • Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, 2002: Malcolm in the Middle
  • Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, 1998: Promised Land
  • Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy or Drama Series, 1975: Mary Tyler Moore
  • Best Supporting Actress in Comedy, 1974: Mary Tyler Moore
  • Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, 1973: A Brand New Life

Mary Tyler Moore: 6

Her show jump-started a dozen careers, in case you couldn’t tell by the amount of times the name appears in this post. Moore was a writer for The Dick Van Dyke Show and Sid Caesar’s variety show, where she cut her comedic teeth. Moore was only 23 but lied about her age, selling herself as 25 (which is not significantly older). Her show, successfully pitched by Moore and her husband Grant Tinker, was a half-hour newsroom comedy, Lou Grant played the boss (who would later get his own hour-long drama spin-off). A show about a single, working-woman was radical at the time, and its influence can still be seen today.

  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special, 1993: Stolen Babies
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 1976: Mary Tyler Moore
  • Best Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 1974: Mary Tyler Moore
  • Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series, 1970: Mary Tyler Moore
  • Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series, 1966: Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Series (Lead), 1964: Dick Van Dyke Show


Tyne Dailey: 6

Daly played MaryBeth, the more “mainstream” of the two women. Her partner, played by Sharon Gless from season 2 on, was the more modern, feminist partner. According to the New York Times’s 1986 review, “is happily married and has two young sons. She is a natural mama, worried not only about her own family but about Chris, most of her co-workers and half of her clients. She’s the one with the New York City accent, dropping an occasional ”youse” into her observations. Her humor is wry and her attitude is extraordinarily practical. ”Do me a favah, will ya,” she barks at an ailing Cagney, ”see a doctah or somethin’.” Out on the town for some rare relaxation with Cagney, MaryBeth offers a toast to her patient and loving husband, Harvey: ”He’s not a saint, he’s my sweetheart.’ All of this is carried off beautifully by Miss Daly, who has already won one Emmy Award for her efforts.”

  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series,  2003: Judging Amy
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, 1996: Christy
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, 1988: Cagney & Lacey
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, 1985: Cagney & Lacey
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, 1984: Cagney & Lacey
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, 1983: Cagney & Lacey


Carroll O’Connor: 5

The brilliant O’Connor synthesized his Queens accent from an Irish brogue (he was an Irish-American) and a mix of various New York accents he’d heard, which made his character, Archie Bunker, sound at once unique and yet utterly New York. As the bigotted, silent majority family man, O’Connor managed to win over an audience that was expected to detest Bunker. O’Connor could keep a straight face while calling his son-in-law a “meathead,” and ranting about the gays, the blacks, the Jews. The best moment in O’Connor’s long, illustrious career is arguably when Sammy Davis, Jr. planted a big fat kiss on Bunker’s cheek.

  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, 1989: In the Heat of the Night
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, 1979: All in the Family
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, 1978: All in the Family
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, 1977: All in the Family
  • Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series, 1972: All in the Family


 

Betty White: 5

Betty White is 92. Just let that sink in for a minute. 92. Nominated for her first Emmy in 1950, White has had an amazingly long career. Her brand of delivery is unique; hearing vulgarities spew sinuously from the mouth of an adorable old lady never loses its charm, though she made a name for herself as a man-hungry, perpetually perky homemaker on the show-within-a-show. In the subsequent 40 years, she’s only gotten funnier with age.

  • Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, 2010: Saturday Night Live
  • Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, 1996: The John Larroquette Show
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 1986: The Golden Girls
  • Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, 1976: Mary Tyler Moore
  • Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, 1975: Mary Tyler Moore


 

Don Knotts: 5

There’s a scene in the Andy Griffith Show in which Don Knotts has to recite the preamble to the constitution, Knotts goes on a tangled ramble of stuttering, back-tracking, and deer-in-headlines glaring that was done in one take. He had to remember where he was exactly while pretending to forget for long stretches of silence. It’s one of the most impressive comedic scenes in television. Knotts only stumbled on his words when he wanted to.

  • Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy, 1967: The Andy Griffith Show
  • Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy, 1966: The Andy Griffith Show
  • Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor, 1963: The Andy Griffith Show
  • Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor, 1962: The Andy Griffith Show
  • Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role by an Actor or Actress in a Series, 1961: The Andy Griffith Show


Candice Bergen: 5

After Dan Quayle decided to use his time in the spotlight to attack Murphy Brown, Bergen and co. used the opportunity to have (the fictitious) Brown watch Quayle’s speeches on television and offer her own response. Quayle criticized the character for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Brown responds by having someone drop a truck full of potatoes in front of Quayle’s house, riffing on Quayle’s inability to spell.

  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 1995: Murphy Brown
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 1994: Murphy Brown
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 1992: Murphy Brown
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 1990: Murphy Brown
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, 1989: Murphy Brown

Kelsey Grammer: 5

Grammer’s voice is immediately recognizable and immensely authoritative, which ironically heightens the passive “prissiness” of Frasier. Frasier’s father, an ex-cop, often derides his sons for being un-manly, and Grammer plays the title character as the epitome of a modern man: smart, articulate, no good with women but great at Scrabble, interested in opera. He gets competitive with his brother over whose I.Q. is higher rather than a game of hoops. Frasier is the most success spin-off character in television, and a lot of that is thanks to Grammer.

  • Outstanding Voice-Over Performance, 2006: The Simpsons
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, 2004: Frasier
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, 1998: Frasier
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, 1995: Frasier
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, 1994: Frasier

John Larroquette: 5

From Ken Tucker’s Entertainment Weekly review of The John Larroquette Show, circa 1993:

In The John Larroquette Show, the weaselly aspect of the actor’s comic manner has been removed. His new character, John Hemingway, is an altogether more likable guy, the newly hired night manager for a run-down bus terminal in St. Louis. Hemingway is instantly sympathetic, as well: In the opening seconds of the premiere, we learn that he’s an alcoholic just five days sober, a fresh recruit in the ranks of Alcoholics Anonymous. The running gag in the first episode is that everyone wants to buy Hemingway a drink; when he strolls into the bus station’s dark, inviting bar, he eyes the bottles of liquor on the shelves and murmurs, ”Hello, boys.” There’s a gratifying realism and irreverence in the way the show deals with Hemingway’s alcohol problem; you aren’t hammered with the message that excessive drinking is bad — instead, the subject remains focused on Hemingway’s personal temptation and resistance.

  • Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, 1998: The Practice
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 1988: Night Court
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 1987: Night Court
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 1986: Night Court
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, 1985: Night Court

Michael J. Fox: 5

At its peak, Family Ties drew viewers from one-third of American households. That’s impressive. Fox played the young conservative Alex, who manages to be simultaneously brilliant and clueless. Fox, best known for his charismatic turn in the Back to the Future films, had his best role on the political sitcom Spin City, on which he played the spin-handling Mike Flaherty.  When Fox announced that he had Parkinson’s, Charlie Sheen (not yet a living, breathing meme) was brought on to lessen Fox’s load, and Fox’s comedic gifts have never felt so obvious. Compared to Fox, Sheen looks like a child trying out for his first high school comedy.

  • Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, 2009: Rescue Me
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, 2000: Spin City
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, 1988: Family Ties
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, 1987: Family Ties
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, 1986: Family Ties

Peter Falk: 5

From the New York Times review of Columbo‘s revival, 1991:

“Now what’s this all about, Columbus?” asks the assured Creighton, reported never to have lost a court case. Creighton is played by Dabney Coleman, which gives this particular case an extra lift. The versatile Mr. Coleman clearly enjoys sparring with Mr. Falk’s patented Columbo shtick. Two old pros keep doing their best to make sure that one won’t steal a scene from the other. At one point, Columbo is invited to dine with Creighton at his private club. Creighton wants only a bowl of soup but Columbo, having heard about the place’s famous New York steak, is determined to have a feast. Placing the order turns into a small comic gem for Mr. Falk.

  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series1990: Columbo
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, 1976: Columbo
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, 1975: Columbo
  • Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series, 1972: Columbo
  • Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, 1962: The Dick Powell Show

Doris Roberts: 5

Casting Doris Roberts alongside the great Peter Boyle was the smartest thing that the producers of Raymond could have done. Doris and Boyle elevated a mediocre sitcom into something special. Doris was immensely lovable in the role, but totally capable of snark. She could speak with her hands and say something completely different with her mouth. She was like your mom, but funnier.

  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, 2005: Everybody Loves Raymond
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, 2003: Everybody Loves Raymond
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, 2002: Everybody Loves Raymond
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, 2001: Everybody Loves Raymond
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, 1983: St. Elsewhere

Art Carney: 5

From his New York Times obituary:

…it is as Ed Norton that he will be remembered by the many fans who have kept ”The Honeymooners” in reruns for decades. Norton was no ordinary sewer worker. He called himself an ”underground sanitation expert.” Every chance he got, he raided the refrigerator of his downstairs neighbor and friend Ralph Kramden, the irascible Brooklyn bus driver played by Jackie Gleason, and his appetite knew no bounds. Norton always wore a vest over his grungy T-shirt, wore a battered fedora indoors and out and always said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

  • Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Special, 1984: Terrible Joe Moran
  • Special Classification of Individual Achievements, 1967, 1968: The Jackie Gleason Show
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role, 1955: The Honeymooners
  • Best Supporting Actor in a Regular Series, 1952: The Jackie Gleason Show
  • Best Series Supporting Actor, 1952: The Jackie Gleason Show

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