Emmys flashback 40 years ago to 1983: Eddie Murphy and Joan Rivers host as NBC shows dominate

NBC network dominated the 35th annual Primetime Emmys, with a groundbreaking drama continuing a winning streak, a little-watched sitcom making its name known and another sitcom proving the network might have cancelled it too soon. Eddie Murphy and Joan Rivers hosted (yes, you read that correctly) the event on September 25, 1983. Rivers claimed she had waited nine years for an invitation to the Emmys, and would be wearing every dress she owed (which ended up being nine), and Murphy was excited about his first nomination. Read on for our Emmys flashback 40 years ago to 1983.

Two years prior, a little police drama had debuted, changing television with its realism and continuing storylines involving the personal lives of the characters. “Hill Street Blues” not only dominated the Nielsen ratings, but it won numerous Emmys throughout its run. This year would mark its third of four consecutive Best Drama Series victories, winning over “Cagney & Lacey,” “Fame,” “Magnum, P.I.” and “St. Elsewhere.” It was also the third year in a row that “Hill Street Blues” earned at least 14 major nominations, setting a record up to that time. However, it was a rare year during this era that the acclaimed drama failed to capture any acting awards, although it did win for directing and writing — the latter of which wasn’t a surprise since it snared all five nominations for that category.

Although it lost Best Drama Series, “Cagney & Lacey” began a Best Drama Actress winning streak that would last until 1988, with both lead actresses nominated each year. Tyne Daly was this category’s champ from 1983-1985, and again in 1988, while her series partner Sharon Gless would win in 1986 and 1987. The others in contention this year were Debbie Allen (“Fame”), Linda Evans (“Dynasty”) and Veronica Hamel (“Hill Street Blues”).

“St. Elsewhere” also claimed some acting wins, with Ed Flanders earning Best Drama Actor; his contenders included his costar William Daniels, as well as John Forsythe (“Dynasty”), Tom Selleck (“Magnum, P.I.”) and Daniel J. Travanti (“Hill Street Blues”).

Best Supporting Actor and Actress weren’t always regular cast members, as the Best Guest Appearance categories were not yet created. Therefore, James Coco and Doris Roberts won Best Supporting Actor and Actress their guest appearance on the “St. Elsewhere” episode “Cora and Arnie.” They each beat out regulars on that series, Ed Begley, Jr. and Christina Pickles, as well as several “Hill Street Blues” cast members: Michael Conrad, Joe Spano, Bruce Weitz, Barbara Bosson and Betty Thomas. Madge Sinclair (“Trapper John, M.D.”) also earned a spot in the actress category.

For Best Comedy Series, three sitcoms earned bids for their debut seasons, while two former winners received recognition for their last. Both “Newhart” and the short-lived “Buffalo Bill” were nominated for their first seasons; neither ever won an Emmy despite multiple nominations. “Taxi” had won this category every year from 1979-1981, while “M*A*S*H” only claimed one victory out of 11 nominations – one for each year it was on the air. But it was a new series that won this year, one that was nearly cancelled in its first season due to low ratings. However, “Cheers” not only won Best Comedy this year, it, like “M*A*S*H,” would earn a Best Comedy nomination for each of the 11 years it was on the air; however, unlike “M*A*S*H,” “Cheers” claimed four victories in this category over the next decade – and soon became one of the highest-rated shows on television. Like “Hill Street Blues,” “Cheers” also ended the night with directing and writing statues.

Another victory for “Cheers” was Shelley Long‘s Best Comedy Actress win over Mariette Hartley (“Goodnight, Beantown”), Isabel Sanford (“The Jeffersons”), Nell Carter (“Gimme a Break”), Swoosie Kurtz (“Love, Sidney”) and Rita Moreno (“9 to 5”). Although “Cheers” would go on to claim more acting victories in the future, a cancelled series swept the rest at this ceremony.

“Taxi” had been cancelled by ABC after four seasons, and picked up by NBC for a fifth, only to be cancelled by that network after one season. But the beloved series went down in victory, with three acting victories. Judd Hirsch won his second Best Comedy Actor statue for his role as cabbie Alex Reiger. He had some stiff competition: two-time recipient in this category, Alan Alda (“M*A*S*H”); Dabney Coleman (“Buffalo Bill”), who would go on to claim a statue in a different category a few years later; Ted Danson, who would eventually win twice for “Cheers”; and Robert Guillaume (“Benson”), who had previously won in supporting for playing the character Benson on “Soap,” and would late win in this category for the spin-off series.

Christopher Lloyd claimed his second straight Best Supporting Comedy Actor trophy for his role on “Taxi,” beating out costar Danny DeVito, who had won two years prior. Harry Morgan earned his ninth consecutive nomination for “M*A*S*H;” he had won once, in 1980. Nicholas Colasanto garnered his first of three consecutive nominations for his memorable role as “Coach” on “Cheers” – he never won. Host Eddie Murphy earned his first Emmy nomination, for his work on “Saturday Night Live.” He’d win 37 years later for a guest appearance on that series.

Best Supporting Comedy Actress also went to a “Taxi” cast member, with Carol Kane winning in this category a year after she had won in Lead. Loretta Swit rounded out her 10-year nomination streak for her iconic portrayal of “Hot Lips” Houlihan on “M*A*S*H” (she won twice), while Rhea Perlman began her 10-year nomination streak for “Cheers;” she would be victorious the following three years and again in 1989. Marla Gibbs garnered her third of five consecutive bids without a win. Eileen Brennan also gained her third nomination in a row for her role as Doreen Lewis on “Private Benjamin,” making her a rare performer to garner Emmy and Oscar nominations for the same character. She had won in this category in 1981, at which time she was a double nominee, with an additional bid for an appearance on “Taxi.”

A notable miniseries almost swept the acting categories for limited series or special, but failed to win Best Limited Series. While the award went to “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” “The Thorn Birds” went down in TV history as one of the most popular and beloved miniseries of all time, and earned three of the four acting awards, with two Golden Age stars winning for Best Actress and Supporting Actress. Barbara Stanwyck snagged her third career Emmy for Lead Actress, while Jean Simmons won in supporting. Richard Kiley won Supporting Actor; this prolific TV actor would go on to earn eight more nominations over the next 14 years, with three more wins. The final win for limited series was Best Actor, which went to a future Oscar-winner. Tommy Lee Jones won a statue for his portrayal of murderer Gary Mark Gilmore in “The Executioner’s Song.”

This Emmy ceremony is not only memorable for the legendary performers and series represented, but also the colorful language used (remember the two hosts), and for a five-minute musical performance. Eleven game show hosts took to the stage and sang about the glories of their profession. It’s a great trip down memory lane to watch Alex Trebek, Art James, Geoff Edwards, Art Fleming, Gene Rayburn, Monty Hall, Jack Narz, Jim Lange, Dennis James, Bert Parks and Peter Marshall entertaining together.

Folks, you don’t get more 1980s than that.

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