September 21, 2003 07:12 PM

It was politics as usual at Sunday night’s 55th Annual Emmy Awards.

Though the TV Academy gave the lion’s share of honors to “The Sopranos” — including wins for leading actor and actress, supporting actor and writing — the HBO Mob hit still didn’t claim the top prize, for outstanding dramatic series. It went instead to NBC’s “The West Wing.”

The White House drama had won in only one other category all night, for direction. But this marked the fourth year running that “The West Wing” was named best series. Meanwhile, the evening’s most-nominated show, HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” went home empty-handed.

The popular CBS sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” won for comedy series, as well as for supporting players Doris Roberts and Brad Garrett and for comedy series writing.

During the three-hour, 15-minute ceremony, which took place at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium, Edie Falco nabbed her third Emmy, for her role as Carmela Soprano. The lead actress winner was first kissed by beau Stanley Tucci and then by costar James Gandolfini.

A minute later, Gandolfini also won his third Emmy for “The Sopranos.” Among those he thanked was Brad Garrett “for taking the heat off of me.” Both actors had widely publicized contract disputes before returning to their respective series.

Meanwhile, the fourth nomination was the charm for Debra Messing, who finally won her first Emmy as lead actress in a comedy series. After being hugged and kissed by her entire “Will & Grace” cast, Messing admitted, “I’m the least funny person on the planet.

“All I ever wanted in life was to be a working actress,” she said. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

As was widely predicted, Tony Shalhoub won his first Emmy, as lead actor in a comedy series for his USA Network series “Monk.” He delivered a tearful acceptance, saying, “On a personal note, I want to dedicate this (award) to my nephew Greg, who was taken so suddenly from us this week. This is a young man of unbelievable strength. He had a warm heart and a big laugh.”

Two major trophies went to Comedy Central’s satiric “The Daily Show,” hosted by Jon Stewart and cited as best variety, music or comedy program as well as for best writing in a variety, music or comedy program.

Another major winner was the TNT movie “Door to Door,” which won the Emmy for made-for-TV movie, for its leading man, William H. Macy, as well as for writing and directing. Dame Maggie Smith won for best actress in a miniseries or movie for “My Year in Umbria.”

The Emmy for outstanding miniseries went to the science-fiction “Steven Spielberg Presents Taken.” (Last year, Spielberg’s “Band of Brothers” received the Emmy in the same category.) And the Academy’s Emmy for a reality/competition program went to CBS’s “The Amazing Race.”

Veteran newsman Walter Cronkite introduced a moving tribute to Bob Hope, who died July 27. Ray Romano then introduced Bill Cosby, the recipient of the Academy’s Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. Romano said that when he first heard a Cosby comedy album at age 13, “I told my parents that I knew what I wanted to be — a black comedian.”

The evening also included a special tribute to John Ritter, who died 10 days earlier after collapsing on the set of his ABC show “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” Henry Winkler, who was with Ritter on the set that day, led the tribute and called his friend “even bigger than he knew he was.”

Said Winkler: “John got by with one simple rule, to do your best and really enjoy the journey. I’d like everyone to remember John not for his pratfalls, not for his goofy takes, but for his remarkable versatility.”

• Check out a list of the night’s big winners.

• PEOPLE’s complete coverage of the 2003 Emmy Awards.

10 p.m.: Emmys Smile on ‘Daily,’ ‘Door to Door’
Comedy Central had reason to smile during the second hour of Sunday night’s 55th Annual Emmy Awards ceremony, with two major trophies going to the cable network’s satiric “The Daily Show,” hosted by Jon Stewart.

The hour’s other major winner was the TNT movie “Door to Door,” which won the Emmy for made-for-TV movie and delivered an acting award to its leading man, William H. Macy.

The Stewart show was cited as best variety, music or comedy program as well as for best writing in a variety, music or comedy program.

Bernie Mac presented the first of the two Emmys won by “The Daily Show,” for writing. Stewart, accepting the award with his creative team (composed almost entirely of white men), joked: “I always said the key to the success of comedy writing is diversity.” (A smiling Mac bit his lip.)

Minutes later, Stewart was onstage again, this time for the award for best variety, comedy or music program. “This war was so good for us,” the fake news anchor cracked.

“Door to Door” starred Macy as real-life salesman Bill Porter, of Portland, Ore., who was born with cerebral palsy. The film also took the writing award for Macy and Steven Schachter and the directing award for Schachter.

“The Sopranos,” which earlier in the evening took the award for writing, won a second Emmy at the top of the second hour, this time for supporting actor in a drama series, to a choked-up Joe Pantoliano. (Of course, Pantoliano’s character, Ralph Cifaretto, won’t be back — Tony Soprano whacked him last season.)

Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara were both honored for their supporting roles in HBO’s “Hysterical Blindness,” in the miniseries or movie category.

Ellen DeGeneres, who called her 90 seconds as a presenter “the easiest way to earn a gift basket,” handed the Emmy for best performance in a variety show to Wayne Brady, for his work on the improv series “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”

HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” took its first award, which went to Robert B. Weide, for direction of a comedy series. He was one of several directors nominated for individual episodes of the show, which stars former “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David.

Meanwhile, Conan O’Brien did an aborted song-and-dance number — which was cut for time during an elongated gag so he could present the comedy writing award. The prize went to Tucker Cawley of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and was the show’s third win of the evening. Prior winners were supporting players Doris Roberts and Brad Garrett.

The Emmy for directing a variety, music or comedy program went to Glenn Weiss for his work on last June’s 56th annual Tony Awards, honoring the best of the Broadway season. The Emmy for variety, music or comedy special went to NBC’s “Cher: The Farewell Tour.”

8:45 p.m.: Emmys Kick Off with Comedy and Kisses
Everybody loved “Raymond” at Sunday’s Emmy Awards, as Doris Roberts and Brad Garrett kicked off the 55th ceremony with trophies for best supporting actress and actor in a comedy series.

Meanwhile, NBC’s “The West Wing” took an early win for best director (Chris Misiano), as did its chief competitor, HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which won for its writing.

Eschewing the tradition of a single host — and celebrating 55 years of TV comedy — the Emmy Awards got the ball rolling with the first comic of the night, Garry Shandling, mocking the revolving set onstage at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium.

“Was I just delivered on a lazy Susan?” Shandling asked the crowd, before warning everyone, “This is going to be a long night. And in today’s political climate, afterwards there’s going to be 139 governor’s balls.”

He then satirized Madonna and Britney Spears’s open-mouthed kiss on last month’s MTV Video Music Awards — locking lips with Brad Garrett. (Afterward, said Shandling, “I want to tell CBS, he’s worth every nickel.” Garrett recently settled a salary dispute with the network over his “Raymond” pay.)

The kissing continued with Matthew Perry, who planted a long, deep Madonna-style smooch on Doris Roberts’s lips when she got to the stage, prompting the septuagenarian winner to declare, “That was worth getting up here for.”

Tyne Daly took the award for best supporting actress in a drama series for “Judging Amy.” Among those she thanked was the late actor Richard Crenna, with whom she had first worked in the ’70s.

FOX’s “Wanda at Large” star Wanda Sykes took to an aisle in the audience to deliver her special brand of comedy, admitting, “I shouldn’t be here. I’m not nominated for anything. I should be home booing all of you people.” Jon Stewart ran clips of news show gaffes during the year, including some awfully dumb questions from on-air hosts.

Stewart also presented Garrett his award, and, taking the golden statuette from the much shorter Stewart, Garrett said, “Jon, why don’t you hop on my back and we’ll do a scene from ‘Seabiscuit.'” Garrett also thanked his producers “for not firing my ass.”

7:15 p.m.: Stars Arrive in Hollywood
As the buffed and polished nominees and well-wishers descend upon L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium for Sunday night’s 55th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, the heaviest attention will likely be focused on three hugely popular competitors: NBC’s “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.”

In the past three years, the NBC White House drama has claimed the top Emmy award for dramatic series, though last year “The Sopranos” didn’t make the nomination cut because no new original episodes aired during the eligibility period.

This year, however, conventional wisdom seems to be in the favor of the HBO Mob hit, despite the record number of nominations (16) for HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” about a dysfunctional family of undertakers.

In a survey of TV journalists posted last week on the Web site, “The Sopranos” emerged just slightly ahead of “Six Feet Under” as the best bet for best drama, with odds of 3-2 (as opposed to 8-5 for “Six Feet”).

TV’s highest-rated show overall, the CBS detective series “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” came in third, while the FOX espionage thriller “24” placed a distant fifth.

Furthermore, the two “Soprano” leads — James Gandolfini’s Tony and Edie Falco’s Carmela, who concluded the season by handing her hubby his walking papers — are perceived as virtual shoo-ins as best dramatic actor and actress. Both have won twice before.

CBS’s popular “Everybody Loves Raymond” (TV’s highest-rated sitcom) and “Monk”‘s Tony Shalhoub (on the USA cable network) are also leading candidates to go home with Emmy gold.

The comedy series winners for the past two years — NBC’s “Friends” and HBO’s “Sex and the City” — are seen as underdogs this time around, despite both gearing up for the grand finales at the end of this coming season. HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” produced by and starring “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, also has its champions among TV critics, with some predicting a surprise upset.

As for NBC’s highly visible “Will & Grace,” the gay-friendly sitcom seems a longshot Sunday, though it got an early jump on the competition by winning three trophies last Saturday at the Creative Arts Emmys (for technical achievements and guest-actor categories).

The Emmys will air live on FOX starting at 8 p.m. will cover the ceremony as it happens.

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