Veteran actors get their dues at the Emmys

Keaton, Ralph and Coolidge prove the longevity and vitality of their storied careers

Flashing lights illuminate the night as, in place of a red carpet, gold lies at the feet of stars like Zendaya, Sandra Oh and Andrew Garfield. It’s television’s biggest night of the year: the Emmys. Once upon a time, the Emmys and its bunch of TV-only stars were perceived as “lesser than” movies — lesser in budget, talent and attention. But the lines have since blurred between the two crafts, with notable crossovers like Mary Tyler Moore’s nomination for best actress for “Ordinary People,” or later when Glenn Close, a now eight-time Oscar nominee, won two Emmys back-to-back for the drama “Damages.” Now, megastars like Zendaya, who won her second Emmy this year for lead actress in a drama (“Euphoria”), cross mediums with ease and great notoriety.

The three acting winners I will focus on, Michael Keaton, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Jennifer Coolidge, have all had successful careers in various forms of storytelling media. This year marks each of their first Emmys, which is a testament to how each actor is still expanding their repertoire in new ways.

Michael Keaton, most widely recognized for “Batman (1989),” “Beetlejuice” and “Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” for which he won an Oscar for best actor in 2015, is known for toeing the comedy/drama line. He won his Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a limited or anthology series or movie for his role as Sam Finnix, a family doctor that prescribes his patients OxyContin and eventually becomes addicted to the drug himself, in “Dopesick.”

The bone-chilling drama depicts the beginning of the opioid epidemic in the United States while focusing on Purdue Pharma, the company that shamelessly promoted the highly addictive drug to doctors and pharmacies. His competition included some heavy hitters, such as fellow Oscar-winner Colin Firth (“The Staircase”), Andrew Garfield (“Under the Banner of Heaven”) and Oscar Isaac (“Scenes from a Marriage”), but Keaton’s stunningly raw performance depicting the horrific opioid epidemic made him a clear front runner from the beginning of the night, leaving no surprises when his name was called.

Sheryl Lee Ralph, admittedly my favorite win of the night, has been acting since the late ‘70s on television, movies and, most notably, on Broadway. Ralph won her outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series Emmy for her “Abbott Elementary” character Barbara Howard, a veteran teacher at a Philadelphia elementary school who helps a second-year teacher (Quinta Brunson) navigate the nuances of inner-city teaching — disappointments and all. Ralph is hilarious, warm, strong and sure of herself in this beautiful role, enhanced by the all-too-real mockumentary-style writing (for which creator/writer/star Quinta Brunson also won an Emmy: best writing in a comedy series).

Her acceptance speech left perhaps the biggest impression on the three-hour-long production. When Ralph’s name was called, the entire room rose to their feet in rapturous applause as she stood frozen in shock. After being led to the stage, rather than beginning to speak, she burst into song, performing “Endangered Species” by Dianne Reeves. At 66 years old, after nearly 50 years in the industry, Ralph gave a master class performance on the screen as Mrs. Howard, which was mirrored by her unforgettable acceptance speech.

Jennifer Coolidge, yet another veteran actress, is nothing less than a pop culture icon. With her memorable supporting roles in “Legally Blonde,” “American Pie” and “A Cinderella Story,” she is known for stealing scenes with her iconic voice and impeccable comedic delivery. After an extensive online fan campaign, it was no surprise that Coolidge took home the prize for best-supporting actress in a limited or anthology series for her role as Tanya McQuoid, a visitor of a resort dealing with alcoholism and personal loss, in “White Lotus.” In many ways, it feels like this win has cemented Coolidge where many fans have seen her for decades: among the Hollywood comedic actor elite.

These first-time Emmy winners are select examples of how consistent hard work and solid roles can yield results. For Keaton, the Emmy is just another acting accolade in an impressive array of nominations and awards. For Ralph and Coolidge, however, these Emmys mark a long overdue recognition of their nuanced and beloved work on screen.