EMMYS: When Is A Guest Star Really A Guest Star?

Cloris Leachman today landed her 22nd career Emmy nomination for her role on Fox’s freshman comedy Raising Hope and may add to her haul of eight Emmy Awards, which is already a record for a female performer. But, despite being featured in the main credits of the show before the title card, listed as a cast member on Fox’s website and included on panels for the series, Leachman, who appeared in 20 of Raising Hope‘s 22 episodes, was nominated not as a supporting actress in a comedy series but as a guest star. The move probably helped the Oscar winner to snag a nomination in the less-crowded guest star field, but it also raises the issue of what really constitutes a guest star on a TV series as the line between a guest and supporting actor has blurred in recent Emmy races.

According to Emmy’s rulebook, “Comedy/Drama series guest performers with ‘guest star’ billing, or who are contracted as such, are eligible in the guest performer categories without regard to the number of episodes he/she appeared in.” The definition was originally limited to a single episode but was later expanded to three episodes and eventually the limit on the number of episodes was lifted altogether. Per 20th Century Fox TV, which produces Raising Hope, Leachman was technically a guest star on the first season of the show despite appearing in virtually every episode, so she was eligible for the guest starring category, something she won’t be next year as she is being promoted to a regular for Season 2.

Leachman’s guest starring nomination is part of a growing trend of the TV Academy moving away from the traditional guest starring stints involving a splashy performance in a single episode and awarding nominations for playing characters built over the course of one or more seasons that often feel like supporting roles. Not a single actor from a primetime series nominated in the guest starring categories this year has done only one episode of the show they got nominated for.

Last year, John Lithgow received treatment equal to that of Dexter star Michael C. Hall in the series’ promotional materials and was prominently featured in every single episode of the Showtime series’ fourth season. He was nominated as supporting actor at the Golden Globes and won. But at the Emmys, he was submitted as a guest star and also landed a nomination and a win. Similarly, this year Julia Stiles, who had a big presence in Dexter‘s Season 5, appearing in 10 of the 12 episodes, was nominated as a supporting actress at the Globes, but earlier today she received a guest starring Emmy nomination for the same role.

Things do seem random: Margo Martindale, nominated today as supporting actress for her role on FX’s Justified, was in 10 of the 13 episodes of the show’s second season. Her co-star Jeremy Davies was nominated as a guest star despite appearing in 11 of the 13 episodes. Cara Buono, who did 10 out of 13 episodes on Mad Men’s fourth season, also was nominated as a guest star. So was Joan Cusack, who appeared in 11 of the 12 episodes of Showtime’s Shameless. On Mad Men, John Slattery, who has appeared in a total of 49 episodes, was nominated as best supporting actor, while Robert Morse, who is credited on 40, was nominated as a guest star. Alan Cumming, who, like Leachman, got promoted as a regular on CBS’ The Good Wife this past season after starting off as a recurring guest star in Season 1, was nominated in the guest starting category last year. This year, he is nominated as a supporting actor in a drama series after appearing in 20 of the show’s 23 episodes. Glee co-star Jane Lynch received a second consecutive nomination for supporting actress in a comedy series, a category she won last year, after appearing in 17 of the dramedy’s 22 episodes from Season 2. Meanwhile, Leachman, who did 20 out of 22 episodes on Raising Hope, is considered a guest star. So is Bruce Dern, who has done a total of 29 episodes of HBO’s Big Love. And, in probably the longest guest starring run, Kathryn Joosten has landed three guest starring nominations (most recently in 2010) and two wins, all in the guest starring category, for her role on Desperate Housewives where she has appeared in a whopping 77 episodes so far.

I don’t argue that there is a need to recognize recurring guest star performances. But the guest starring categories are being used more and more for roles that feel like supporting, giving series opportunities to get more of their actors recognized and actors a choice to submit themselves as guest stars or supporting. When they opt to go as guest stars, that gives them an advantage because, as recurring, sometimes heavily, their roles are often more familiar to Academy voters than one-off guest performances no matter how strong they might be.

  1. I think a good policy would be that you have to appear in less than half of the eligible season’s episodes to be considered a guest star.

    1. I agree with ae to an extent but alan’s comment also makes sense. John Lithgow did explain his decision to go supporting — which was that he was coming in for just one season and didn’t want to harm the chances of a possible nomination for one of the regulars. That being said, one should consider the role as well as number of appearances in any given season.

      “Damages” is a case in point — Ted Danson (in 2008), Zeijko Ivanek (in 2008), William Hurt (in 2009) and Martin Short (in 2010) were all nominated as Outstanding Supporting Actor even though their roles were for one season. However, Tomlin was nominated as a Guest Actress for the same one-season appearance last year. None of these actors are regulars on the show.

      Series regular Rose Byrne has been twice-nominated as Outstanding Supporting Actress (which makes sense) while the deserving Tate Donovan has been overlooked — perhaps because of the guest actors.

      ae’s suggestion makes sense but once that criteria is met, then contracts and roles should be considered. And like the Motion Picture Academy, the TV Academy should have some sort of final say as to category placement.

  2. I believe only Cloris’s picture was featured in the opening credits. She was always credited as a special guest in the end credits. I hadn’t realized that they had changed the rules and thought that she was only eligible for supporting since she was in so many. So confusing.

  3. I think it’s a shame, Chloris Leachman is clearly supporting. And it’s not just for tv, others use the same trick, Halee Steinfeld for supporting actress, anyone ?

  4. I’ll give you Stiles, Lithgow, Cusack…but some things on this article are just wrong.

    Cloris Leachman is billed as a guest star, a Special Guest Star in fact, and she’s not credited on the opening credits. Her picture is there, her character gets a mention in the children’s book the title is modeled after, but she’s not credited.

    You sort of complain about Kathryn Joosten and her “whopping!” number of episodes, but you should know that this year, the one you decided to specifically write about her, she was submitted as Supporting Actress, not Guest. Something she did a few years back too, she even landed on the Sup. Actress Top 10, even if she won in Guest the year after (I think)

    Also, big mistake on the episode limit for Guests…It used to be 6 episodes before this new rule, not “1 then 3 then no limit” like you say. If you knew about this, you would remember people like Bobby Cannavale and that huge cheat they did on Will & Grace when he was really in 7 episodes but because two of those were actually “two parts of the same episode”, it made him be in 6 and eventually won. Otherwise that nomination would’ve been removed or it never would’ve happened.

    Also the majority of the comparissons on this article are just wrong.

    Cloris Leachman gets a pass mainly because she’s not really a supporting player on the episodes, even if she’s on almost every episode, on some of them she barely speaks any lines (if any). She’s just there on the background like a E.R/Grey’s Anatomy nurse.

    Also, Leachman’s case in no possible way compares to Jane Lynch and the fact that was in less episodes of Glee than Leachman on Hope. Come on!

    You might say Bruce Dern has appeard in any number of episodes you want to say, but this season, the one that ACTUALLY COUNTS! for the Emmys, he was in 5 episodes and a clear guest on all of them. FIVE episodes, one less than the previous limit for Guest Actors.

    Robert Morse is also a clear guest actor on every episode he’s in even if he’s on a large number of episodes. However, that nomination is very much undeserved. Same can be said for Cara Buono.

    So in reality, there are very, very few examples of this. The Dexter guests (Lithgow, Stiles and Jimmy Smits before them) really enter the show as clear supporting players, but they cheat and go to Guest and people will follow from now on. Joan Cusack is almost (almost) the same. The others you mentioned, not so much.

    1. But Morse was credited as a regular (with the ‘with’), not a guest, in Season 4.

      The Martindale-Supporting/Davies-Guest is the most jarring divide here, I think.

  5. This is bogus. All of the actors listed should be up for the supporting categories. Guest star nods should be limited to one appearance.

    1. I wouldn’t go that far. Either a maximum of six episodes or some larger number of non-consecutive episodes. The Cloris Leachman nomination is a farce, as much of a farce as Ellen Burstyn’s nomination as Best Supporting Actress in 2006.

  6. This is one of those things that I don’t like now but that I’ll be fine with when I have Cloris Leachman’s status.

  7. My criteria is if the actor has a multiple year series deal; versus a single episode deal (even if it is for multiple episodes.)

  8. I wonder who is the lead actor in Modern Family when all of the guys were nominated in supporting actor category.

  9. If you really want to get technical about this, you should be counting screen time per episode, not just an appearance in an episode. Some episodes of “Shameless” featured a lot of Joan Cusack, some featured very little. Cara Buono didn’t have much of a part in the beginning of the “Mad Men” season, but became more important later on.

  10. Maybe Leechman submitted herself in the guest star category so the show could (potentially) have a nominee in each category. Lead actress (Martha Plimpton) supporting actress (Shannon Woodward) and guest actress.

  11. What it is REALLY all about it the producers don’t want to pay the actors, so they won’t make them regulars, just guest stars.

    They don’t have to pay as much for a guest star as for a regular.

    When the Membership First administration of SAG blithely allowed the producers to jam all of a guest star’s scenes into one day of shooting and pay for only one day, even being a guest star stopped paying the bills for the working actor.

    Merger, people. We need to strengthen our unions. Wisconsin, anyone?

  12. Then again, in Alan Cumming’s case, he was clearly classified as a “guest star” last season whereas this year he was in the main cast billing. While he was in a lot of episodes, this system does make sense.

  13. John Goodman was credited as Guest Star in the closing credits for every episode of the first season of Treme. He had as much or more screen time and as strong or stronger impact than any “regular” or “lead” listed in the opening credits. His story was arguably at the center of the first season, helping put the other stories into context. Why was he credited this way? In fact, his being credited as a Guest Star gave away the major plot turn of the season.

    1. I understood it to be that he was a late addition to the pilot/series casting, so he became ‘guest’ after all of the series regular contracts had been negotiated and finalized…

      He is listed on the back of the dvd in the ‘poster credits’ as IF he’d been credited as a regular.

  14. What did Voltaire say? “Once a philosopher, twice a pervert.” A guest star should be a philosopher.

  15. In the cases of Buono, Cusack and Leachman, none of their names appeared in the opening credits leading me to believe they weren’t on contract and therefore eligible as guest.

    1. Cusack WAS in the opening credits of Shameless (but was billed as ‘Special Guest Star’, the same billing Chris Noth gets on The Good Wife).

  16. Actually, Cloris leachman’s character (the drawing) was in the opening credits of raising hope, but she was not credited there unlike the others who had both drawing and name. She was listed the entire season as a special guest star . They were asked at a conference if she’ll be added to the main cast for season 2. She’s thus not the right example for that story.
    As for modern family, it’s the same philosophy as the friends’ cast.

  17. Yes her name is not in the opening credits even though her picture is, as if it was their plan all along to get her an Emmy for guest star.

  18. I was really really bummed that Mayim Bailik didn’t receive a guest actress nomination. She is wickedly hysterical with her delivery on Big Bang Theory. I hope they upgrade her to regular cast status. Amy Farafall is my favorite character on any sitcom.

  19. I was thinking the same thing. If Hailee Steinfeld’s character wasn’t the main character of True Grit, who was? But hedging your bets with a supporting nom is old school at the academy.

  20. Are we forgetting the most awesome Special Guest Star of all time, Heather Locklear on Melrose?

  21. It clearly depends on how the show hires the actor. Jeremy Davies was probably hired as a Recurring Guest Star and Margo Martindale as a 10/13 Series Regular. Cloris Leachman has not been hired as/upped to series regular status and is, despite the number of her appearances, a Recurring Guest Star.

    Talk to someone in casting, or someone who deals with paying the actors; they’ll gladly explain the difference to you.

  22. Many fans of Jonny Lee Miller are bitter that his star turn on Dexter was not nominated. His work was brilliant – but for reasons we do not understand his presence in season 5 was limited to only a few hours. Nevertheless, he deserved a nomination.

    Question: Has anyone in US television industry heard of Miller’s fantastic success in Danny Boyle’s play Frankenstein at London’s National Theatre this year? I wonder how many (if any) of the actors nominated for tv performances this year could play the role of the Creature? None could, is my guess.

  23. Who cares? The public should vote for the winners not the out of touch old geysers that do the voting

  24. I agree with Voter that this is really about money and contracts, and not the award noms. It’s unfortunate.

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