Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.
When the Screen Actors Guild Awards first came on the scene in 1995, Lansbury was nominated for her role as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. She lost to Kathy Baker of Picket Fences.
But even though she did not go home with the Actor statuette, Lansbury’s introductory speech at the ceremony was such a hit that it launched a tradition that has become a highlight of the annual SAG Awards: the Actors Stories—unofficially known as the “I Am An Actor” speeches.
Lansbury gave the audience some background information on the new awards, but she also added a personal touch via a list of some of her more memorable roles: “I’ve been Elizabeth Taylor’s sister, Spencer Tracy’s mistress, Elvis’ mother, and a singing teapot”. She added: “Tonight is dedicated to the art and craft of acting by the people who should know about it: Actors. And remember, you’re one too!”.
Then, as now, SAG Award winners have plenty of time to thank their agents, parents, partners, pets, and assorted deities for their success when they take the stage. But in an industry overwhelmed with awards ceremonies and endless opportunities for self-congratulation, the Actors Stories mark a refreshing change of pace, a chance for the TV audience to learn more about the craft of acting and the often-rocky road to stardom. And, for the all-actor crowd at the live awards, it was a chance to learn little-known facts about each other.
For the first eight years, the SAG Awards appointed one actor to make such a speech, says Kathy Connell, producer of the awards since their inception. That list includes such distinguished stars as John Lithgow, Ian McKellen, James Woods, Kathy Bates, and Whoopi Goldberg. Borrowing from Lansbury’s speech—or maybe Alcoholics Anonymous?—remarks have always included some variation on the phrase: “I am (name here), and I’m an actor”.
Goldberg’s 2000 speech illustrates the typical actor’s blend of pride and insecurity: “I’m an actor. I strut and fret my hour upon the stage, and I’ve done a lot of strutting because I am an actor. Am I the right age to play a mother? OK, I don’t sweat that one so much. Am I the right sex to play a Roman slave? Am I the right color to play a maid? Ha, ha. Is anybody going to believe that I could pass for a nun? Am I going to eat next week?”.
For the ninth annual SAG Awards in 2003, Connell says supervising producer Gloria Fujita-O’Brien suggested replacing a single one- to two-minute speech with multiple Actor Stories of 15 to 30 seconds. The 2003 speakers included Alfred Molina, Kathy Bates (who confessed to starting her career as a singing waitress in the Catskills), Kristin Davis, Keith Williams, Halle Berry (who once dreamed of being an Olympic gymnast but “wasn’t quite good enough”), and David Hyde Pierce, who joked: “I’m still looking for a movie to do this summer. My name is David Hyde Pierce, and I’m an actor”.
At the awards ceremony, attended only by actors and closed to the press, the actors sit at tables rather than in rows. Those chosen to speak deliver their Actors Stories from their seats. Executive producer and director Jeff Margolis says the actors who will speak are miked in the green room, and nobody, including their tablemates, knows in advance who will tell a personal story to the roving Steadicam.
“I think it’s sort of become our signature—we’re the only show that does it”, Margolis says. “It gives the actors a chance to do something other than thank 40 people that nobody knows. The people at home, as well as some of the other actors, don’t know how these people got started”.
In the years of the longer speeches, Writers Guild members wrote the comments with the actors’ input. Now actors provide their own material, giving the producers an advance copy. But that doesn’t mean there are no surprises, Connell observes. “They have thought about it, but it is also live television. Sometimes (the speech) gets tweaked, so we are all having a live moment”.
Some speeches are comic. Some are heartfelt. And some, like this 2004 Actor Story, are just plain bemused: “In 1978, I got my SAG card and since then I’ve been asked to give it back on six separate occasions. I’m Brad Garrett, and I don’t belong here”.