Ray Richmond: It’s time for Emmys to finally honor Norman Lear, Carol Burnett and Dick Van Dyke

Jackie Gleason never won an Emmy. Neither did Ed Sullivan. Or Andy Griffith. Or Fred Rogers. Or “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry. Or “Rocky & Bullwinkle” genius Jay Ward. Bob Newhart’s sole Emmy win was as a guest actor on “The Big Bang Theory” in 2013.

Yes, the 74 years of Emmy history are chock full of surprises spanning both winners and non-winners. That extends to the Emmy’s Governors Award as well. The TV academy describes that Governors Award – bestowed generally but not always annually since 1978 – as follows: “The Board of Governors of the Television Academy may, when warranted, recognize an individual, company or organization that has made a profound, transformational and long-lasting contribution to the arts and/or science of television by presenting them with the Governors Award.”

The first Governors Award in ’78 went to CBS founder William Paley. CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite got the second, NBC “Tonight Show” legend Johnny Carson the third. Others have deservedly included Bob Hope (’84), Red Skelton (’86), animation impresario William Hanna (’88), Lucille Ball (’89), Ted Turner (’92), PBS (’95), Lifetime network’s “Stop the Violence Against Women” initiative (’03), Jerry Lewis (’05), cartoon voiceover artist June Foray (’13), Tyler Perry (’20) and Debbie Allen (’21). All well and good.

But you know who was never honored with a Governors trophy and never will be other than posthumously? Mary Tyler Moore, for one. Carl Reiner, for another. Garry Marshall (“Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley”), for a third. Rod Serling of “Twilight Zone” fame, too. The Emmys actually honored Betty White twice – with a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement in 2015 for all of her game show contestant success and in 2018 when the Primetime Emmys had her come out to get a standing ovation and take a final career bow, albeit without an official award attached. It was significantly better than nothing, given that the woman was still with us to appreciate it.

Speaking of still with us, let’s cast our gaze on the living legends for whom there is still time to bestow a Governors Award. At the top of that list are Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett, all of whom carved out their greatest and most consistent success on the small screen. It’s hard to believe that none of these three has yet been honored by the Emmy Awards themselves in a more formal way. And mind you, they aren’t getting any younger. By the time the 75th Emmys roll around in September, Lear will be 101 and Van Dyke 97. Burnett is turning 90 on April 26. There isn’t a moment to lose here, academy brain trust.

Let’s look individually at why each of these icons is deserving of the highest tribute the TV industry can pay.

LEAR: All he did is revolutionize television and change prime time as we know it. No biggie. Lear produced, wrote, created or developed more than 100 shows, none of them of course bigger or more impactful than “All in the Family.” That comedy was ushered onto CBS in 1971 and instantly transformed the medium with its defiant topicality and fearless unwillingness to pull its punches. Much of the show’s success came from its frank and mocking treatment of sensitive and important subjects, everything from race to sex, gender to bigotry, social inequity to homosexuality. It was topical throughout the 1970s in a way that television had been unwilling to be until that point, cementing the idea that TV could be used to comment meaningfully on the society around it. It won four Best Comedy Series Emmys, among many others.

Lear also produced several other iconic comedies, including “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “One Day at a Time,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.” He was honored by the Kennedy Center in 2017 and with a Gold Derby Life Achievement Award way back in 2008. When will the academy follow suit? Does the man have to turn 110 first?

VAN DYKE: If all Dick Van Dyke had ever done was “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66), his status as a television giant would have been secure. It was one of the greatest sitcoms in the medium’s history, holding up shockingly well in reruns to this day due to the writing, the cast chemistry and Van Dyke’s unreal talent as a comic performer. But he’s been a major presence on TV clear through the new millennium. People forget that he had a second hit show on CBS, “Diagnosis Murder,” that ran for 178 episodes from 1993 to 2001. He still makes personal appearances in his late 90’s (including on “The Masked Singer”) and spreads joy wherever he goes, the perfect ambassador for a medium that he helped to grow and mature in its earlier days.

He’s won four Emmys, but nothing in terms of a career achievement. Van Dyke was honored with a SAG Life Achievement Award in 2013 and a Kennedy Centers Honors citation in 2020. Now, it’s the Emmys’ turn.

BURNETT: Few in the history of television broke more gender barriers than did Carol Burnett, an actress, comedian, singer, writer and producer whose “The Carol Burnett Show” comedy-variety hour was the first of its kind to be hosted by a woman. Her show, which ran from 1967 to ’78, proved as hilarious as it was impactful. The Hollywood High graduate would guide a talented cast (including Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway) through a show that would win 25 Emmys and consistently be hailed as a television comedy classic. She’s continued to work on screens big and small, including over the past season as a four-episode recurring character on “Better Call Saul” that could land her a supporting Emmy nomination.

Burnett was already bestowed a Gold Derby Life Achievement Award in 2007 and was cited by the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 along with a SAG Life Achievement in 2016. And NBC – not even the network (CBS) where her long-running variety show originally ran – is tossing her a two-hour 90th birthday party in prime time that will air on her actual birthday. It’s long past time for the TV academy to follow suit and plan its own honor.

A caveat: I understand the academy hasn’t ignored Lear, Van Dyke and Burnett. They’re all members of the academy Hall of Fame. In fact, Lear went in with the first class of inductees in 1984, Burnett the following year and Van Dyke in ’95. And all three have sat for Television Academy Foundation archival interviews. This isn’t about that. It’s about honoring them on national television with a special Emmy (in this case the Governors Award).

There are plenty of others who qualify as Governors Award material, too. I’m thinking of people like 47-time Emmy nominee (and 11-time winner) James Burrows, “M*A*S*H” alumnus Alan Alda, late night legends David Letterman and Lorne Michaels of “SNL” fame, talk show host extraordinaire Dick Cavett and Mel Brooks (whose TV writing credits include “Your Show of Shows” and “Get Smart”).

But I don’t see anyone more deserving (and, given, their age, more urgently in need of honoring) than Lear, Van Dyke and Burnett – either one at a time over the next three years or, better yet, all at once given the ticking clock. Let’s look one more time at the qualifications for a Governors Award: “a profound, transformational and long-lasting contribution to the arts and/or science of television.” Profound? Check. Transformational? Check. Long-lasting? Check. Yes, I’d say Lear, Burnett and Van Dyke check off all those boxes, and then some.

Anyway, just trying to help the academy do its job here. No need to thank me or enrich me financially as a consultant, you guys. Simply follow my advice and we’re all good.

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