The Weird Guest Actor Category At The Emmys: Who's A Guest, Anyway? We break down the odd Guest Performer categories at the Emmys, and consider how famous regulars could crowd out one-shot performances that are more easily classified as actual "guest" roles.
NPR logo The Weird Guest Actor Category At The Emmys: Who's A Guest, Anyway?

The Weird Guest Actor Category At The Emmys: Who's A Guest, Anyway?

John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell on Dexter. Randy Tepper/Showtime hide caption

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Randy Tepper/Showtime

The Outstanding Guest Actor/Actress category at the Emmys is a very odd duck. You don't have to be someone who only showed up in one episode. Or two episodes. Or three episodes. You can be in as many episodes as you want. There used to be limits, but now there are none.

Now, it's entirely about the label slapped on the performance by the show or the contract, according to the Emmy rules: "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." And this year, that's resulted in some head-scratchers.

This is how you wind up with strange happenings like John Lithgow submitting himself as a Guest Actor for Dexter, despite being there all season. Zach Gilford, who's been a central character on Friday Night Lights since its inception (and who's currently the subject of a Facebook campaign aimed at getting him a nomination), submitted himself as a Guest Actor as well -- and he can, because that's what they called him in the credits in the fourth season, despite the fact that he is not actually a "guest" on that show in any recognizable use of that term.

Other "guest actors" on this year's ballot: Lily Tomlin, who was vital to the entire season of Damages. Henry Ian Cusick, who's spent several seasons on Lost as Desmond. Walton Goggins, a major figure in the opening season of FX's Justified. Jared Harris, who played Lane Pryce on Mad Men -- and Robert Morse, who plays Bert Cooper. Sarah Drew, who had a full season arc as April Kepner on Grey's Anatomy.

It doesn't happen as much in comedy, though Andy Buckley, who plays David Wallace on The Office and has for years, submitted himself as a Guest Actor. So did Patrick Gallagher, who plays Ken Tanaka on Glee, and so did Iqbal Theba (who plays Principal Figgins) and Mike O'Malley (who has been highly praised for his unexpected performance as Kurt's dad).

There's nothing wrong with potentially nominating these performances, and it's easy to understand how somebody like Jared Harris might think he'd get lost in the shuffle against Mad Men's other supporting actors like John Slattery. At the same time, the more the category becomes a home for decorated regulars and semi-regulars -- Goggins, for instance -- the more real guest stars could in turn be lost in the shuffle against them. If Lily Tomlin was great in a whole season's worth of episodes, how do you compete if you did a traditional guest-starring role in a single episode, no matter how good you were?

Moreover, using billing and contracts, rather than something about the work itself, to determine award eligibility seems unwise (though certainly, it's not the only award where that happens, particularly with producers and writers). The designation "guest star" often reflects your existing status, rather than what you're doing on the show, potentially morphing the category into Outstanding Performance By A Famous Person. It has often looked like that effectively anyway, but when the contract and not the content is driving the distinction, it's even worse.

The answer is pretty simple: return to a two-episode or three-episode limit. Yes, regulars in smaller roles will have a tough time, but that's already the case, unless they have the good fortune to get themselves billed as guest stars. Guest Performer is a category worth having, but if it's going to exist, then it needs to have a definition that makes some kind of sense.

Lithgow reportedly wants to avoid stepping on his Dexter co-stars who submit in supporting categories (there are four of them), but in the process, he (inadvertently, of course) steps on real guest actors -- people who actually do the difficult job of dropping into an existing show for only a short time and have only an episode or two to make an impression.