As the 71st Emmy Awards approach, StartTV is celebrating the achievements of women in prime time television. All this week, ahead of the ceremony in Los Angeles, StartTV will showcase its interviews with some of the best in the business. These innovative and inspirational women are among the many that have made significant contributions to the industry, be it on camera or behind the scenes, setting the stage for others striving to follow in their footsteps.
This year’s Emmy nominations are a testament to the many ways in which women continue to break barriers in the world of television as the industry grapples with parity. In the Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series categories, there is an unprecedented number of female-driven shows starring and created by women. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a series about a 1950s New York City housewife finding her voice as a standup comic, leads the pack with a whopping 20 Emmy nods.
One of television’s early comedic icons is Carol Burnett who, in the 1960s, became the first woman to host a TV variety show. And even before The Carol Burnett Show first aired on CBS in 1967, Burnett had received two Emmys for her work; in 1962 she won the Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series for The Garry Moore Show, and the following year won the same award for Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall and An Evening with Carol Burnett.
In her interview with StartTV, Burnett revealed that she was raised in Los Angeles by her grandmother, and although they were poor, they saved every penny so they could go to the movies. Later, as a student at UCLA, Burnett majored in theater arts and quickly caught the acting bug. She discovered early on that she loved making people laugh. “I had to get up and do a scene for the class. All the other kids had done very heavy, dramatic scenes, and I just picked something light, and they laughed where they should have,” Burnett recalled in her interview. “And I thought whoa, that's kind of a nice feeling.”
At the end of her freshman year, Burnett received the award for best newcomer. “I still have that framed,” she laughed. “It’s in my office.”
Despite all of her early success, Burnett still had to fight her way to the top. Although she signed a contract with CBS that guaranteed her a comedy variety show, network executives tried to dissuade her from pursuing it. “Musical comedy variety is a man's game,” said one. “It’s Sid Caesar, it's Milton Berle, it’s Dean Martin, it’s Jackie Gleason. It's not for you gals.” He offered her a sitcom called Here’s Agnes instead. “I don't want to be Agnes every week,” Burnett responded. “I want to have costumes, I want dancers, I want guest stars, I want a rep company, and I want an orchestra. I want all of that. And they had to put us on the air,” she told StartTV triumphantly.
Today, Burnett still receives affirmation that she helped pave the way. “I get mail from people saying ‘you know, because you did it, I feel that I can try out for this part or be in this play,’” she said. “It gives them courage.”
In January, 2018, Burnett received the first-ever Golden Globe television special achievement award, named in her honor, from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. In her acceptance speech, she reminisced about what television was in her day, saying she was “incredibly fortunate” to have been there when she was “because what we did then couldn’t be done today. The cost alone would be prohibitive.” The Carol Burnett Show can now be seen on weeknights at 11pm/10c on MeTV.
TV screenwriter Treva Silverman made Emmy history in 1974 as the first woman ever to win the award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series without a male partner for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “I won the Emmy for comedy and another woman won the Emmy for drama,” she recalled during her StartTV interview. “So it was a big, big deal.” Not only that: Silverman also took home the Emmy for Writer of the Year for a Series.
The series was truly groundbreaking. “With Mary, her work was the center of her life,” Silverman said. “I didn’t realize it so much at the time, but so many little girls watched it and [thought] ‘Oh Mommy, I don’t have to be just a mommy. Maybe I can have an office that I really like to go to, too.’”
Fast forward to today, and Silverman says it is still fundamental to have female characters who serve as role models, explaining, “Since television is how a lot of people learn about the world…everybody learns a lot, and if they can see strong women, it’s like a four-year college education.”
Comedian Marsha Warfield skyrocketed to fame in the 1980s with her role as tough-talking bailiff Roz Russell on the NBC sitcom Night Court. The series, set during the night shift of a Manhattan municipal court presided over by a young, unorthodox judge, garnered multiple Emmy nods during its eight-year run, winning seven awards. “Everybody talks about Night Court, even people who were too young to see it. They tell me that I'm their mother's favorite comedian,” Warfield tells START TV. “It's nice to hear that something you did stayed with people and made an impression.”
Warfield went on to appear in numerous TV shows over the years, before coming out of retirement to return to her roots in standup comedy in 2019, calling herself “the world’s oldest rookie.” “If I was just starting out, I’d give myself the same advice I did then, which was don’t quit,” Warfield told StartTV. “If you quit, you never know what might have happened. But if you stick with it, you’ll find all kinds of different things you don’t expect.”
Roma Maffia began her acting career in off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions. She later appeared in director Ron Howard’s film The Paper. Maffia made her name on the small screen when she landed a role on the CBS medical drama Chicago Hope in 1994. Her star continued to rise when she was cast as Seattle attorney Catherine Alvarez in the film Disclosure starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. Maffia’s performance in Disclosure led TV producer Cynthia Saunders to offer her the role of forensic pathologist Grace Alvarez in the hit NBC crime drama Profiler, which follows the exploits of a female criminal profiler working with the fictional FBI Violent Crimes Task Force in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Profiler shaped my career because I think once you're a series regular, producers say ‘oh, she's already done that, so I can trust that she can do a series and not to flake out,’” Maffia told StartTV. “Work begets work, so it helped me get more work, which was great.” Maffia went on to have guest-starring and recurring roles on shows such as ER, Law & Order, Boston Legal and Nip/Tuck. From 2013-2017, she had a supporting role on the hit series Pretty Little Liars, playing a savvy state investigator working on unsolved murder cases.
Dale Soules also started her career in the theater, landing her first major Broadway role at just 22, when she starred in the original production of Hair. Today, Soules is best known for her role as inmate Frieda Berlin on the Netflix blockbuster Orange is the New Black, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her time at a minimum-security federal prison. OITNB is the first series ever to score Emmy nominations in both the comedy and drama categories. Overall, it has earned 16 Emmys nods and four wins.
“Jenji Cohen, who is the creator, the woman who came up with the idea to turn Piper Kerman’s memoir into a series, has said it was her way into the women's low-security prison,” Soules told StartTV. “And once the audience followed [Kerman] in, then she could tell all of the other stories of the voices that are never heard and that have been either silenced or just not had an arena in which to speak.”
Lillah McCarthy was a television actress before making the transition into production after landing a job as a program executive at ABC Entertainment. In her interview with StartTV, McCarthy says “I was one of the few executives who came into the business from being an actress, from being around actors and writers, as opposed to coming in through the business side.”
McCarthy went on to hold an executive position at Fox, where she was on the team that helped shepherd The Simpsons. At Sony Pictures TV, McCarthy executive produced the Kyle Chandler CBS drama Early Edition. She then spent 12 years at TBS and TNT, where she was one of the guiding forces behind the creation of The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, one of the most iconic female detectives on television. The Closer was nominated for seven Emmys, winning one.
“I developed not only The Closer but also Saving Grace, which starred Holly Hunter, and then we developed Rizzoli and Isles, which has two female leads,” McCarthy enthused while speaking to StartTV. “So we were really, really proud of ourselves for being the people who got these women in leadership positions. Now everybody does it, but at the time nobody was doing it.”
Diane Ademu-John is also one of the women to watch in Hollywood today. She is currently Executive Producer of the eight-time Emmy nominated musical drama Empire, which centers on a fictional hip hop music company and the drama surrounding founder Lucious Lyon’s family as members fight for control of the business. Front and center is matriarch Cookie Lyon, played by Taraji P. Henson.
“She is a force of nature, and we see what it takes to be a woman who completely speaks her mind and lives with the rewards and consequences of that,” Ademu-John explained to StartTV. “There have been characters like this on TV, but it’s very exciting to see this particular character, an African American face, having that free voice.”
Ademu-John previously worked on the Emmy winning supernatural drama Medium, starring Patricia Arquette as Allison DuBois, a medium who works for the Phoenix, Arizona district attorney’s office, and the medical drama Body of Proof, starring Dana Delaney as medical examiner Dr. Megan Hunt. “Pretty much throughout my career I’ve had strong female...not just characters, but leads,” she said.
StartTV has already featured two such females in our Investigation Week, where we went behind the scenes to speak with the stars of the Emmy-nominated CBS crime drama Cold Case, which ran from 2003-2010, about how they approached their roles. We also spoke with Kathryn Morris, who played detective Lilly Rush, and Tracie Thoms, who played detective Kat Miller, about the lessons they have learned along the way.
Morris’s first appearance on the small screen was in the 1991 telemovie Long Road Home, where she had a minor role. Several other small parts followed, including one as a psychiatric patient in the Oscar-winning film As Good as it Gets. She then played the lead in the short-lived television series Pensacola: Wings of Gold and continued to work in films. After Steven Spielberg saw Morris in the 2000 movie The Contender, he offered her supporting roles in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report. The following year came the lead in Cold Case.
In her interview with StartTV, Morris reflects, “Something that I've found to be very important is I had many little jobs on the way to some of the big moments that happened in my career. All of those things helped me learn how to show up on time, how to stand on my mark, how to be professional.” She continued, “I never really looked at Cold Case as an overnight success. I feel like I had 13, 14, 15 years of being an apprentice or a journeyman. I never underestimate the small steps in learning to become an actor.” After a pause, she added, “or learning how to do anything in life.”
When Tracie Thoms was cast in Cold Case in 2005, she had already earned a small following playing Mahandra McGinty in the short-lived Fox television series Wonderfalls and Sasha in the US version of the TV series As If. She has subsequently appeared in several films, including the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical Rent, in which she plays lawyer Joanne Jefferson, and The Devil Wears Prada.
“My younger self would never have thought that my career would be as interesting as it is. It shocks me,” Thoms acknowledged in her interview with StartTV. “It takes an incredible amount of force, graceful force, and belief in you to stay in this business. And then …how do I give back and how do I tell stories I want to tell and how do I inspire people who are younger than me?” She continued, “You just figure out that path of yours, and it’s actually quite lovely.”
StartTV also pays homage to one of the most enduring women in television, Rachel Feldman, who got her start as a child actor, performing on Broadway and as the voice of Lucy in Peanuts. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and receiving an MFA from NYU, Feldman began her career in directing and writing. After seeing one of her early shorts, legendary television producer Steven Bochco hired her to direct the medical drama Doogie Howser, MD, which won three Emmys during its four-year run. Feldman’s subsequent directing credits have included Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, starring Jane Seymour, and the Emmy-nominated Sisters as well as Picket Fences, Lizzie McGuire, The Baxters, Criminal Minds and Blue Bloods.
“It has been a long haul,” Feldman said in her interview with StartTV, “but the doors are opening, we are being acknowledged, we are being seen, and our work is getting through. And that is wonderful.”
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