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The TV Stars Who Were Only Great In One Role

With the Emmy Awards happening this weekend, we’ve been looking back through its archives to get a sense of how it’s shaped our views of television. First we looked at which types of shows have been nominated for which types of awards, and then we figured out which Emmy categories were the strongest of all time.

We can also look at all this aggregated data and answer questions about the performers themselves. Who were the actors who were defined by a single character they played? Which shows saw most of the glory go to a single cast member? And who were the all-around greats, the kind of performers who could slip into several skins and get acclaim for each one?

Performers succeeding in only one role isn’t rare. Sometimes they just crush the part they were born to play. Others get typecasted; there are plenty of cases in which a repeatedly acclaimed performance playing a single character can pigeonhole a performer. Great television can breed this: Ask yourself, who from “The Sopranos” cast — besides the legitimately unstoppable Edie Falco — is getting work outside of the E Street Band? There’s a long history in television of people getting all their Emmy award nominations for one show:

David Hyde Pierce Frasier Niles Crane 11
Rhea Perlman Cheers Carla Tortelli 10
Loretta Swit M*A*S*H Margaret Houlihan 10
Tony Shalhoub Monk Adrian Monk 8
Mariska Hargitay Law & Order: SVU Olivia Benson 8
Carroll O’Connor All in the Family Archie Bunker 8
Ty Burrell Modern Family Phil Dunphy 7
Sean Hayes Will & Grace Jack McFarland 7
Patricia Heaton Everybody Loves Raymond Debra Barone 7
Megan Mullally Will & Grace Karen Walker 7
Loretta Young The Loretta Young Show Herself 7
Julia Duffy Newhart Stephanie Vanderkellen 7
Jon Cryer Two and a Half Men Alan Harper 7
Jane Kaczmarek Malcolm in the Middle Lois 7
Isabel Sanford The Jeffersons Louise Jefferson 7
Helen Hunt Mad About You Jamie Buchman 7
Hal Linden Barney Miller Barney Miller 7
Gary Burghoff M*A*S*H Cpl. O’Reilly 7
Estelle Getty The Golden Girls Sophia Petrillo 7
Betty Thomas Hill Street Blues Lucille Bates 7
Performers who got all their Emmy nominations from one TV show

Source: IMDb

There will always be people defined by a single role, and David Hyde Pierce is chief among them. Well, he would be if not for his old colleague, Kelsey Grammer.1 Grammer was nominated for 13 individual performing Emmys for playing Dr. Frasier Crane, but he earned those nominations across three different shows: “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Wings”.2

Exceptions aside, what’s interesting about the table above is the wide distribution of when its performers were on television. “The Loretta Young Show” (1953-61) is up there with “M*A*S*H” (1972-83) and the more recent “Will & Grace” and “Modern Family.”

What about the other direction, though, not when a show defines an actor forever, but when an actor defines a show?

Angela Lansbury Jessica Fletcher 92% Murder, She Wrote 13
Loretta Young Herself 100 The Loretta Young Show 7
Amy Poehler Leslie Knope 100 Parks and Recreation 6
Don Knotts Barney Fife 83 The Andy Griffith Show 6
Bea Arthur Maude Findlay 100 Maude 5
Blair Brown Molly Dodd 100 The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd 5
Julia Louis-Dreyfus Christine Campbell 100 The New Adventures of Old Christine 5
Patricia Richardson Jill Taylor 80 Home Improvement 5
John Hillerman Higgins 80 Magnum, P.I. 5
Peggy Lipton Julie Barnes 80 Mod Squad 5
Marlo Thomas Ann Marie 80 That Girl 5
Margo Martindale Claudia 80 The Americans 5
Matt LeBlanc Matt LeBlanc 100 Episodes 4
Debbie Allen Lydia Grant 100 Fame 4
Don Cheadle Marty Kaan 100 House of Lies 4
Neil Patrick Harris Barney Stinson 100 How I Met Your Mother 4
Idris Elba John Luther 100 Luther 4
Dean Stockwell Al Calavicci 100 Quantum Leap 4
Michael J. Fox Mike Flaherty 100 Spin City 4
Donna Reed Donna Stone 100 The Donna Reed Show 4
Which performers scooped up the nominations for their shows?

Source: IMDb

The group has everyone from Barney Fife to Barney Stinson. Angela Lansbury, the perennial bridesmaid-but-never-the-bride of the Primetime Emmy Awards, is obviously at the top of the list, as will be the case when compiling nearly any kind of list based on Emmy nominations. Amy Poehler is an interesting case study: “Parks and Recreation” was a slow build of a critical darling, but Poehler remained the only cast member to get nominated for an Emmy. Yet its cast was one of the strongest ensembles on television at the time.3

Two other people jump out on this list: Michael J. Fox (“Spin City”) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“The New Adventures of Old Christine.”) Sure, both of them were the best known people from their respective shows, but they’re largely known for other, even better-known work.

To walk this exercise through to its logical conclusion, I went through the database and flagged any performers who had at least a quarter of their4 Emmy nominations from two different television shows. If you want to know who has range and longevity, this is who you’re looking for:

Julia Louis-Dreyfus Seinfeld 7 17
Veep 5
The New Adventures of Old Christine 5
Michael J. Fox The Good Wife 5 17
Family Ties 5
Spin City 4
Tyne Daly Judging Amy 6 16
Cagney & Lacey 6
Christine Baranski The Good Wife 6 15
The Big Bang Theory 4
Cybill 4
Edie Falco The Sopranos 6 13
Nurse Jackie 6
Tina Fey 30 Rock 7 13
Saturday Night Live 5
Allison Janney The West Wing 6 12
Mom 3
Masters of Sex 3
Bea Arthur Maude 5 11
The Golden Girls 4
Julianna Margulies ER 6 10
The Good Wife 4
Candice Bergen Murphy Brown 7 9
Boston Legal 2
Amy Poehler Parks and Recreation 6 9
Saturday Night Live 3
Which actors got Emmy nominations from several different shows?

Any performers with two different programs that count for more than 20 percent of their Emmy nominations apiece

Besides Louis-Dreyfus, there are four others from this very group who were nominated this very year; Poehler and Fey already shared the win for Best Guest Actress for their night on SNL — beating out Christine Baranski for “Big Bang Theory” — and Allison Janney is up Sunday for “Mom” once again. Outside of those folks, several recent staples of the Emmys appear, like Fox, Edie Falco and Julianna Margulies.

Honorable mention time: Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore, Ted Danson and Alec Baldwin were all in spitting distance of making the cut for this, if only they hadn’t found so very much success on one show5 rather than the other.6

It’s the folks in that last table who are the real pros. The Emmy awards are not good at a lot of things — continuity, for one — but what they are grand at is demonstrating the versatility that television offers performers. People can spend a career on TV, and the very best performers can not only spend years with a character but potentially a bunch of highly varied characters. The Academy Awards — which, compared to television, commemorate performances that take place over much less screen time — are great at commemorating one moment of an actor’s long run in performing arts. With the Emmys, we get to reward the achievements that unfold in real time.

Read more Emmys coverage:

CORRECTION (Sept. 16, 5:01 p.m.): A table in an earlier version of this article misstated the number of Emmy nominations Amy Poehler has earned for her appearances on “Saturday Night Live.” It is three, not two.

CORRECTION (Sept. 16, 5:57 p.m.): A table in an earlier version of this article misstated who Donna Reed played on the “Donna Reed Show.” She played a character named “Donna Stone,” not a version of herself.

CORRECTION (Sept. 26, 3:17 p.m.): An earlier version of a table in this article misstated the percentage of Emmy nominations an actor needed to receive from each of two or more shows to qualify for inclusion in the table. It was greater than 20 percent, not greater than or equal to 25 percent.


  1. There may be others like Grammer, who played a single character on several different shows. But IMDb, where I got my data, did not have character names listed next to Emmy nominations going back far enough for me to make any widespread claims.

  2. Grammer also received a nomination for Best Voice-Over in “The Simpsons.”

  3. I do think time bears this out. Action star Chris Pratt, Netflix hot-shot Aziz Ansari, former Pistol Shrimp Aubrey Plaza, person-who-gets-to-be-married-to-Megan-Mullally Nick Offerman, Billy Eichner, Rashida Jones, Retta, recent Comedy Central roastee and Super Troopers 2 lead Rob Lowe, it seems like literally everyone who was on Parks & Recreation is doing pretty good right now. Even Jean Ralphio is getting paid. I’ll come back to this later, probably?

  4. Five or more.

  5. “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Golden Girls,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Cheers” and “30 Rock,” respectively.

  6. “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Mary Tyler Moore” again, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Damages” and “Will & Grace,” respectively.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.


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