There has never been an awards show like the 53rd annual Primetime Emmys 20 years ago. The terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 on 9/11 caused the delay of the awards twice. And when it finally took place, the three-hour show miraculously managed to be funny, moving, emotional and ultimately uplifting. And host Ellen DeGeneres was a shining light that night.
The 53d Emmys were initially set to take place at the venerable Shrine Auditorium on Sept. 16. But then 9/11 happened. And for the first time in Emmy history, the awards were delayed. The awards were rescheduled for Oct. 7 at the Shrine. That Sunday morning, though, President George W. Bush launched attacks on al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan thus beginning what would be a 20-year- war.
The Emmys, though, were still set to happen. The show, which was to be simulcast from New York to accommodate Emmy nominees who didn’t want to fly, was to include an opening speech from the venerable Water Cronkite, tributes to first responders and close with a speech by then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and a singalong of “America the Beautiful.” Everyone was told not to go formal but dress in business attire. The Governors Ball was even retitled the Unity Dinner. Three hours before the awards were scheduled to start, the Emmys were cancelled again.
Seven weeks after the Emmys originally were scheduled, the show finally aired on CBS on Nov. 4. But not in the cavernous Shrine Auditorium, but at the more intimate Shubert Theater in Century City, which had been the home to such musical hits as “A Chorus Line,” “Evita” and “Les Misérables.” Eleven months after the Emmys, the beloved legit theater was demolished for mammoth office complex. There were no bleachers with screaming fans. Streets were barricaded. The police were a dominant force that evening-sharpshooters were placed on nearby roofs.
Academy chairman Bryce Zabel said before the ceremony: “We’re going to be seen on television in 90 countries. If there is a theme to the show, it’s the images that people will see will demonstrate two great American traditions: the freedom to assemble and freedom of expression. People will say whatever they want. That’s what this is about.” The N.Y. Times reported that money was the “central” issue as to why the show was rescheduled. Commercials for the Emmys “generally sell for top dollars and CBS pays the academy about $3 million to broadcast the show, an amount that largely supports the work of the organization.”
The audience at the Shubert and at home wondered if the Emmys would strike the right tone. Having the gravitas and warmth of Cronkite, who was in Toronto, was the perfect way to start the telecast. He proffered a speech in which he explained how the Emmys had to change that year due to the “deep grief for our losses and concern for society,” adding that “television, the great common denominator, has lifted our vision as never before. And television reminds us that entertainment help us heal.”
DeGeneres first appeared nervous telling the Emmy crowd “I didn’t think we’d get this far,” addressing the previous two cancelled events. She quickly hit her stride getting a lot of laughs: “What would bother the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?” She wrestled on stage with Martin Short’s corpulent Jiminy Glick. DeGeneres went into the audience, totally ignoring Steve Martin to interview a very surprised seat filler.
And then there was Barbra. The unannounced Barbra Streisand, accompanied by a choir, provided a touching, moving finale performing the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Behind her was a wall featuring names of those who had died on 9/11. She received an impassioned standing ovation. And even 20 years later, her performance packs an emotional wallop.
As for the awards, here are some of the winners that night:
Comedy Series: “Sex and the City” (HBO)
Drama series: “The West Wing” (NBC)
Miniseries: Anne Frank: The Whole Story” (ABC)
TV Movie: “Wit” (HBO)
Drama Actor: James Gandolfini, “The Sopranos” (HBO)
Drama Actress: Edie Falco, “The Sopranos” (HBO)
Drama Supporting Actor: Bradley Whitford, “The West Wing” (NBC)
Drama Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, “The West Wing” (NBC)
Comedy Actor: Eric McCormack, “Will & Grace” (NBC)
Comedy Actress : Patricia Heaton, “Everybody Loves Raymond” (CBS)
Comedy Supporting Actor: Peter MacNicol, “Ally McBeal” (Fox)
Comedy Supporting Actress: Doris Roberts, “Everybody Loves Raymond” (CBS)
TV Movie/Mini Actor: Kenneth Branagh, “Conspiracy” (HBO)
TV Movie/Mini Actress: Judy Davis, “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” (ABC)
TV Movie/Mini Supporting Actor: Brian Cox, “Nuremberg” (TNT)
TV Movie/Mini Supporting Actress: Tammy Blanchard, “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” (ABC)
Variety Series: “Late Show with David Letterman” (CBS)
Variety Special: Cirque du Soleil’s “Dralion” (Bravo)
Individual Variety or Musical Performance: Barbra Streisand, “Timeless” (Fox)
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