As you watch the parade of celebs gliding down the red carpet into the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 19 — as you gawk at Sarah Jessica Parker and gape at Matt LeBlanc — you might want to take a moment to thank your lucky stars. Because there was a time, not too many TV seasons ago, when Emmy audiences weren’t nearly so fortunate. There was, in fact, one particular broadcast during which hardly any stars shined at all: the infamous 32nd Annual Emmys.
Turn back the clock on your VCR to 1980. Taxi is one of the hottest comedies on TV, Alan Alda is prime time’s sexiest star, and the world is waiting to find out who shot J.R. Turned out Dallas fans had to wait longer than anticipated, because on July 21 the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists voted to strike. Hundreds of actors, furious at being cut out of the profits from the hot new home-video industry, walked off their sets and began a 95-day labor dispute that became one of the costliest and most acrimonious in Hollywood history.
Amazingly, in the midst of it all, NBC decreed that the Emmys must go on. ”It didn’t start out bad,” recalls Ken Ehrlich, the exec producer of that ill-fated broadcast. ”[NBC president Brandon Tartikoff] said we were going to move on with the show. But then the closer it got, everybody just started getting sick.”
Those illnesses weren’t exactly a surprise. The actors announced their intention to boycott with an ad in the trade papers, signed by 39 of the 52 nominees, including M*A*S*H‘s Alda, Benson‘s Robert Guillaume, and Quincy‘s Jack Klugman. Some of those nominees still speak of their decision with a raised fist of pride: ”It was a demonstration of our strength to forgo our personal recognition of achievement for the sake of the cause,” says seven-time Emmy winner Ed Asner, then up for his second nod for Lou Grant.
Some 80 actors stayed home that night, including most of the ones who were supposed to host the event, like Lee Remick, Bob Newhart, and Michael Landon. As replacements, Dick Clark and Steve Allen were emergency-limoed in. Still, the broadcast looked like a Who the Heck is That of the TV industry. Other than Dynasty‘s Linda Evans and a smattering of other mostly minor celebs (Earthquake actor Marjoe Gortner, Those Amazing Animals host Jim Stafford), the broadcast was virtually star-free. Instead, network executives (like Tartikoff) and TV producers (like Police Woman‘s David Gerber) climbed on stage to present awards — more often than not, to 8 × 10 glossies of absent winners.
”This is a star-studded audience!” Steve Allen quipped at one point. ”Three stars and 14 studs.” The joke wasn’t all that funny then, either, but the audience laughed anyway.
The only truly surprising moment in the three-hour ceremony was when Powers Boothe suddenly appeared on stage to accept his win for Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. It wasn’t that Boothe won that was shocking; it was that he was actually there. Dick Clark had to scramble backstage to find a statuette to give him. ”This is either the most courageous moment of my career, or the stupidest,” Boothe said.