Danny Moloshok/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
September 17, 2021
Online Originals

First Things First

From the debut ceremony in 1949 to the 73rd celebration this year, the Emmys abound with memorable milestones. Here are a few.


Tom Knapp

The history of the Emmy Awards is a history of firsts.

From the first-ever Emmy winners in 1949 — the ranks of which included a show starring a puppet — to the nomination this year of the first transgender performer in a lead actress category, the Emmys have evolved and adapted during their many years of honoring excellence in television arts and sciences.

Mj Rodriguez, nominated this year for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her performance as Blanca Evangelista in Pose, is the latest TV trailblazer who has expanded boundaries for those who work in the field.

Rodriguez is among the first openly transgender performers to be nominated for an Emmy, following in the footsteps of Laverne Cox, who in 2014 made Emmy history as the first openly transgender actor to be nominated — for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series — for her performance in Orange is the New Black and actress-filmmaker Rain Valdez, who received a nomination as Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for Razor Tongue, in 2020.

Cox did win a Daytime Emmy Award in 2015 as an executive producer of Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, making her the first openly transgender woman to win the Daytime Emmy.

Pose also made Emmy history in 2019 when cast member Billy Porter became the first openly gay man to win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama.

But the first Emmy firsts came 70 years prior.

The first Emmys ceremony took place at the Hollywood Athletic Club on Jan. 25, 1949, six statuettes were awarded. According to 73 Years of Emmy, a brief history of the award prepared by the Academy, the very first Emmy — Most Outstanding Television Personality — went to 20-year-old Shirley Dinsdale and her puppet sidekick, Judy Splinters, for The Judy Splinters Show.

Other awards that year included the Station Award for Outstanding Overall Achievement (KTLA), Technical Award (Charles Mesak for the introduction of TV camera technology, Best Film Made for Television (The Necklace), Most Popular Television Program (Pantomime Quiz) and a special Emmy to Louis McManus for designing the statuette. In 1950, a few new categories were added, including Best Live Show (The Ed Wynn Show), Most Outstanding Kinescoped Personality (Milton Berle) and Best Commercial (Lucky Strike).

The following year, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best News Program and Best Sports Program were among the additions; the first people to be named Best Actor and Actress were Alan Young and Gertrude Berg.

By 1955, the Academy expanded the categories to include to a broad range of craft awards. By the ninth ceremony in 1957, the Emmys offered a nationwide color telecast from NBC's East and West Coast studios.

In the years since, there have been many other firsts at the Emmys, especially as television became more inclusive. Here's a sampling.

The first Black performers to be nominated for an Emmy were Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr., both in 1956, for Best Specialty Act, according to the Paley Center for Media. Belafonte was the first Black performer to win an Emmy, for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, in 1960 for Tonight with Harry Belafonte.

1960 was also the first year that an animated series — Huckleberry Hound — won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Show. Two years earlier, a different canine made history when Lassie appeared as the first non-human Emmy presenter.

The first made-for-TV movie dominated the awards ceremony in 1961, the Academy notes: Hallmark Hall of Fame's Macbeth won Emmys for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Drama, Program of the Year, Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Maurice Evans as Macbeth), Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Judith Anderson as Lady Macbeth) and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Drama (George Schaefer).

Bill Cosby received the first nomination and win for a Black actor in 1966, when he was named Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for I Spy. He and Lloyd Haynes were the first Black actors to be nominated for a comedy series — The Bill Cosby Show and Room 222, respectively — in 1970. The first Black man to take home the Emmy for a lead role in a comedy was Robert Guillaume, for Benson, in 1985.

The first Black woman to win an Emmy was Gail Fisherwhen she received the award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Drama, for Mannix, in 1970. Diahann Carroll was the first Black actress to be nominated as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, for Julia, in 1969; but the first Black actress to win in that category was Isabel Sanford for The Jeffersons, in 1981.

The first Black actress to be nominated for a lead role in a drama series was Debbie Allen, for Fame, in 1982; the first to win was Viola Davis, for How to Get Away with Murder, in 2015.

The Emmys evolved in 1970, which was the first year the telecast concentrated solely on primetime entertainment, and a separate, non-televised Creative Arts Awards program was created for the craft and technical side of the industry. In 1973, the Academy separated news and documentary Emmys and, in 1974, daytime Emmys were divided from primetime awards.

The first tie in Emmy history occurred in 1977, when ABC's Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years and NBC's Sybil — both directed by Daniel Petrie — shared the Outstanding Special or Drama award.

Rita Moreno was the first Hispanic woman to win an Emmy. She was named Outstanding Supporting Actress for her appearance on The Muppet Show in 1977 and, one year later, Outstanding Lead Actress for an a Single Appearance in the a Drama Series for an episode of The Rockford Files. The first woman to be named Outstanding Director in a Drama Series was Karen Arthur, for Cagney & Lacey, in 1985.

The first woman to win the top directing honor for a comedy series was Betty Thomas for Dream On in 1993. Thomas Carter became the first Black man to win an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for Equal Justice in 1990; for a comedy series, that milestone was achieved by Donald Glover in 2017 for Atlanta.

In 1997, the first depiction of homosexuality by a primetime lead earned Ellen DeGeneres a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, for the special one-hour episode of Ellen in which she came out as a lesbian.

The first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award was given in 2002, to Oprah Winfrey.

Hulu and Netflix became the first streaming services to win Emmys for original programming in 2017, with several awards (including Outstanding Drama Series) going to Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. The following year, Amazon Prime Video followed suit, when The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won Outstanding Comedy Series.

Also in 2017, the first actor of Asian descent, Riz Ahmed, earned a statuette for Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for The Night Of. Ahmed and Dave Chappelle — who was named Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for Saturday Night Live — also became the first Muslims to win acting awards that year, and a year later, Sandra Oh earned the first nomination for an actress of Asian descent, for Killing Eve.

Game of Thrones costar Gwendoline Christie made the bold move in 2019 of nominating herself for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. Although she wasn't the first actor to self-nominate, she was the first to receive the sought-for nomination.

In 2020, Schitt's Creek became the first comedy series to sweep all major categories, winning nine Emmys in total — including outstanding series, lead actress (Catherine O'Hara), lead actor (Eugene Levy), supporting actress (Annie Murphy) and supporting actor (Dan Levy).

The first person to reap an EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — was composer Richard Rodgers, who completed the set with an Emmy win in 1962. Helen Hayes became the first woman to capture the quartet in 1977.

And, of course, 2020 is perhaps best known as being the first year the Emmys were broadcast mostly from the living rooms of its presenters and nominees, via Zoom, because of pandemic restrictions.

This year, the Emmys set even more records. Among them:

  • Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You) won Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie making her the first Black woman to win in this category.
  • Jean Smart (Hacks) won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. She now joins Betty White as the only two performers to hold the distinction being Emmy winners across all comedy performer categories — Lead, Supporting and Guest.
  • RuPaul (RuPaul’s Drag Race) won Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program making him the most awarded person of color in Emmy history with 11 Performing and Program Emmys to date.
  • Debbie Allen (Grey’s Anatomy) was this year’s recipient of the Governors Award making her the first Black woman in Emmy history to receive the honor. And, together with her 2021 Choreography and Producing wins for Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, Allen is the Television Academy’s most celebrated Black woman with five Emmy wins and her Governors Award.
  • Jessica Hobbs (The Crown) won Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series while Lucia Aniello (Hacks) won two awards for Outstanding Directing and Writing for a Comedy Series, marking the first time women dominated these directing categories.
  • For the first time, a streaming service, Netflix, took home more awards than any other network or platform, with 44 total wins.
  • Dolly Parton — four-time Emmy nominee is a first time winner this year as one of the producers for Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square.
  • Jason Sudeikis is the first lead actor in a freshman comedy to win an Emmy for both Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, and as one of the producers of Ted Lasso.
  • WandaVision marked Marvel Studios' first foray into a limited series, and the show picked up three Emmys this year—including for Outstanding Production Design, Outstanding Fantasy Sci-Fi Costumes and Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics—making the studio an official Emmy winner for the first time.

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