Memories could give lift to Emmys

In a somber time, Dutton, DeGeneres could be just what awards show needs


September 18, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Hitting the right notes with musical and pre-taped segments in a television award show can be tricky. A cautionary example might be that of Rob Lowe dancing with a woman dressed as Snow White in the opening of the 1989 Oscar telecast.

The juggling act becomes even trickier when a telecast primarily known for its glitter and glitz comes on the heels of a national catastrophe. In 2001, for example, the Emmy Awards show was twice postponed before finally airing in the wake of terrorist attacks. Producers of tonight's 57th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards show find themselves facing a similarly sensitive situation as the country mourns the death and destruction left by Hurricane Katrina.

The return of Ellen DeGeneres, who successfully presided over the 2001 telecast as emcee, is expected to go a long way in establishing the right tone. But director Ken Ehrlich also has added several pre-taped segments aimed at elevating the tenor of the broadcast. Foremost is a series of brief monologues given by presenters remembering the first time they won Emmy Awards. The group is mostly A-list: John Travolta, Candice Bergen, Billy Crystal, Michael J. Fox, Lisa Kudrow and Charles S. Dutton.

`America works'

The memories are touching or, in some cases, act as landmarks in pop culture history. Travolta reflects upon accepting his Emmy on behalf of his first love, actress Diana Hyland, who had died a few months before the award. Bergen recalls the political fallout that was triggered in 1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle spoke out against the character she played on CBS's hit show Murphy Brown.

But it is Dutton's recollection that promises to be tonight's show-stopper. In 1967, the 54-year-old actor was sent to a Maryland prison for manslaughter. From there, he went to the Yale School of Drama and Broadway stardom. In tonight's show, he describes how he felt as he stood onstage in 2000 after receiving an Emmy for directing The Corner, an HBO mini-series about a family's struggle to escape a life of drugs in Baltimore.

"As I started to speak, what hit me was the journey itself - the fact that some 30 years earlier, I was on a stage in a prison in Hagerstown, Md., and here I was now in Hollywood holding the Emmy," Dutton said last week in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

"The thought that overwhelmed me: America works. That's what I'll be talking about in the taped segment that airs just before I present the award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series during the telecast."

Dutton dates the start of his acting career to a day in 1972 when he found himself in isolation at the Hagerstown prison: "In those days, it was common punishment to put you on a cold cement floor - no blanket, no sheet, no toilet, just a hole in the floor, and you only got fed every 72 hours," he said.

Inmates in isolation were, however, allowed one book. In Dutton's case, it was an anthology of black playwrights that included Douglas Turner Ward's 1965 work, A Day of Absence. Described by The New York Times as a "reverse minstrel show," the Obie Award-winning play features an all-black cast, in whiteface makeup, recounting the mayhem that occurs when a town in the Deep South is suddenly and inexplicably faced with the disappearance of all its black citizens.

"It's a hilarious political satire, and it had me just breaking up in laughter on this cold cement floor in the isolation cell," Dutton recalled last week. "And I decided that when I got out, I was going to get the craziest guys I knew in the prison - the most demonstrative - and put on a drama group, with me directing and starring in this play, even though I had never done either."

With the help of a local actress who volunteered as prison drama coach, Dutton successfully staged A Day of Absence as part of the prison's 1972 Christmas talent show. "There were 14 or 15 acts in the talent show, and 13 or 14 of them were singing groups. And they were all singing 13 or 14 different renditions of My Girl [The Temptations 1965 Motown hit]," Dutton said. "So, I knew whoever did something different was going to win."

Dutton said he felt like a winner before the production even ended. The moment arrived when he delivered the play's big speech, a plea made on national television by the white mayor for the black residents to return: "It was during that speech when I had that captive audience - I guess, pun intended - in the palm of my hand, that I realized I was doing what I was born to do while on this planet."

Dutton's troupe did win, and he will never forget the moment. "It had all the pomp and circumstance of an awards show. They announced the winner on the stage with all the groups standing there - going from third place, to second, to the winner. We all got our little statuettes - cheap little plastic things that were supposed to look like Oscars - but the audience was screaming and shouting, and that was the start of my emergence as an artist."

Remembering anchors

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