8 Famous Emmy Firsts: How Laverne Cox, Rita Moreno and More Made TV History
Last year’s Emmy nominations saw a historic first: Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox was nominated for the outstanding guest actress in a comedy series award, making her the first openly transgender person nominated in an acting category. (Conductor Angela Morley won several Emmys for music direction.)
The award ultimately went to Cox’s Orange costar, Uzo “Crazy Eyes” Aduba – the win was announced during the Creative Arts portion of the awards – but Cox’s nomination is a first nonetheless. Now in their 67th year, the Emmy Awards have seen many famous firsts. Have a look back at other celebrated performers who scored one of these firsts in the Primetime Emmy acting categories.
First Black Actress to Win an Emmy: Gail Fisher
Singer Ethel Waters became the first black woman nominated for an Emmy in 1962 (outstanding single performance by an actress in a series for an episode of Route 66), and Diahann Carroll became the first to be nominated for a leading role in 1963 (an episode of Naked City). But it’s Gail Fisher who became the first Emmy-winning black actress for her role on the detective show Mannix in 1970. Fisher played gal Friday to the title character from 1968 to 1975, and in 1970 she won the Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama.
In 1974, Cicely Tyson won the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or movie. In 1981, The Jeffersons star Isabel Sanford became the first black woman to win lead actress in a comedy series.
First Hispanic Actor to Win an Emmy: Albert Paulsen
While Puerto Rican actor José Ferrer was the first Hispanic actor to get an Emmy nomination – at the third-ever Emmys in 1951 – the first win went to the Ecuadorian-American actor Albert Paulsen in 1964 for his role on Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater.
Paulsen’s win paved the way for subsequent wins by Hispanic actors years later, such as those of Ricardo Montalbén in 1978 (outstanding single performance by a supporting actor in a comedy or drama for How the West Was Won), Edward James Olmos in 1987 (outstanding supporting actor in a drama for Miami Vice) and Raul Julia, who posthumously received the outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or special Emmy in 1995 for The Burning Season.
First Hispanic Actress to Win an Emmy: Rita Moreno
Notably, Moreno snagged back-to-back Emmy awards – first in 1977 for her performance on The Muppet Show and then in 1978 for The Rockford Files. (Yes, she has range.) That 1977 Muppet win also made her the third person ever (and first Hispanic performer) to score an EGOT – an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
Some might argue that Imogene Coca is technically the first Hispanic actress to win an Emmy, as she got one for best actress back in 1952. Coca’s father, musician Joseph Fernandez Coca, was of Spanish descent, but it’s largely agreed that Moreno gets the honor. In 2007, Ugly Betty star America Ferrera became the first Hispanic actress to be awarded the Emmy for lead actress in a comedy series.
First Asian Actor to Win an Emmy: Danny Thomas
Born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz, this Make Room for Daddy star is the child of Lebanese immigrants. Lebanon being in western Asia, Thomas therefore became the first Asian actor to win an Emmy in 1955 when he got the best actor starring in a regular series award. The second? Tony Shalhoub, who is also Lebanese-American and who won the first of three Emmys for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series for Monk in 2003.
There has yet to be an actor of East Asian, Southeast Asian or Indian descent who has won an Emmy, though among those nominated are Toshiro Mifune in 1981 for Shogun, Pat Morita in 1986 for Amos, Naveen Andrews in 2005 for Lost, Masi Oka in 2007 for Heroes and Ben Kingsley on four separate occasions, first in 1989.
First Asian Actress to Win an Emmy: Marlo Thomas (debatably)
While most people wouldn’t readily think of Marlo Thomas as being Asian, she’s Danny Thomas’s daughter, meaning That Girl was half Lebanese. By some accounts, she therefore became the first Emmy-winning actress of Asian descent in 1986, when she took home the statuette for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or special for Nobody’s Child.
The next winner is Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who won the outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or movie in 2009 for House of Saddam. The following year, Indian-British actress Archie Panjabi scored the Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama for her role on The Good Wife.
Notable Asian actresses who have been nominated for Emmys include Lucy Liu in 1999 for Ally McBeal, Margaret Cho in 2012 for 30 Rock and Sandra Oh for Grey’s Anatomy for four consecutive years starting in 2005.
First Gay Actor to Win an Emmy: Raymond Burr
Most viewers of the classic series Perry Mason had no idea that its star was a gay man when Raymond Burr won the Emmy for best actor in a leading role in 1959 and then again in 1961. Public perception of Burr as gay only became widespread after Burr’s death in 1993.
From David Hyde Pierce to Sean Hayes, many gay actors picked up Emmys before publicly coming out. Marlon Brando, who won the Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in 1979 for his role in Roots: The Next Generations, commented on his relationships with men in 1976, but he’s not usually discussed as being a gay actor. Michael Jeter and Derek Jacobi were openly gay at the time of their wins – 1989 and 1994, respectively – but it’s debatable how widely this was known to the general public. In fact, it may be Neil Patrick Harris‘s 2010 win for outstanding guest actor in a comedy for Glee that marked the first Emmy win by an actor widely and publicly known to be gay.
First Lesbian Actress to Win an Emmy: Kristy McNichol
Bewitched star Agnes Moorehead picked up an Emmy back in 1967, and while it’s long been speculated that she was a lesbian, there’s no proof about Moorehead’s sexuality either way. That means the first lesbian actress to win an Emmy is Kristy McNichol, who won in 1977 for her role on Family and who came out as a lesbian in 2012. In fact, that year, she beat out her costar, Meredith Baxter, who also came out later.
Cynthia Nixon won an Emmy in 2004 but had not publicly come out at the time. Cherry Jones, who won best supporting actress in a drama in 2009 for her role on 24, just might be the first openly lesbian actress to win in a major role, with Jane Lynch’s 2010 Glee win following close behind.
First Emmy Winner Ever: Shirley Dinsdale
Back at the inaugural Primetime Emmy Awards, how many performers took home statues? Just one: ventriloquist Shirley Dinsdale, who delighted early TV audiences with her dummy, Judy Splinters. No, really. Despite her claim to fame, Dinsdale ultimately left performing for a second career as a cardiopulmonary therapist. Preliminary research does not note whether Judy Splinters followed her.