The Emmy Formula: Which Roles and Actors Win the Most Gold

We reviewed the numbers to find out which occupation wins most frequently, how old the victors usually are, and more.

by | September 13, 2018 | Comments

James Gandolfini at the Emmys and in The Sopranos (Kevin Winter/ImageDirect; Anthony Neste/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect; Anthony Neste/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Since 1949, some 239 Emmys have been awarded to 138 outstanding lead actors and actresses. These talented stars won their 6-pound statuettes for appearing in 135 different dramas and comedies, which aired on 17 different networks, cable channels, and streaming services – and they beat out 900-plus disappointed nominees on their way to the podium. (The number of post-show limousine tantrums from that latter group remains unknown.)

The 70th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be awarded Monday, and we’re getting nerdy with numbers. In the lead-up to the milestone ceremony, we’ve researched every single past winner from the Outstanding Lead Actor and Actress Comedy and Drama categories to answer one simple question: Who is the average acting Emmy winner? What do they look like? What role do they play? And what can we learn about who might win next?

In each category, we recorded the age of the winner at the time that they won, the network they were on, the occupation of the character they played, as well as the actor’s race (for this, we used the U.S. Census Bureau’s race classifications, and researched each actor’s background and how they racially identify). We also noted the Tomatometer score for the season of the TV show for which they won, where available.

Crunching the numbers, we wanted to know, among other things: What is the average age of the actors who win for drama and the most common occupation of the winning characters? Is the most likely Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series winner a white actress playing a stay-at-home mom in her third season of a CBS show? Or is it a Latina in her first season of an edgy HBO breakout hit? (Surprise-free result: It’s not the latter).

Here is what we found, category-by-category.

Go To:

OVERALL: Play a White, Middle-Aged Cop on CBS – And Make Sure Your Character’s Name Is in the Title

Peter Falk, star of Columbo (ABC via Getty Images; NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
(Photo by ABC via Getty Images; NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Key Stats:

  • Average age: 44.9
  • White winners: 95.3%
  • Dominant network: CBS, 82 wins
  • Most common role: law enforcement, 33 wins
  • Tomatometer average for winning seasons since 2000: 87.1%

The Season 1 Advantage

Attention ambitious TV actors with your eyes set on the golden-winged lady: Actors most often win an Emmy for their first season (33% of all winners), and if you want to win multiple Emmys, it’s better to earn laughs than shed tears – nine winners have won four or more trophies for comedy acting, only four actors can boast the same achievement for drama.

Until 2011, 40% of Winners Were Title Characters

From 1951 to 2011, 40% of acting Emmys went to performers in series with their characters’ names in the titles (e.g., Frasier, Cagney & Lacey, Monk). But since 2011, character-titled shows haven’t won anything in the lead acting categories, as series like Veep, The Good Wife, and Breaking Bad – which describe, but don’t name, their leads in their titles – have ruled the acting awards.

The Migration Away from Networks Started Not With HBO, but With the Disney Channel

Hard to believe now, when the likes of HBO and Netflix dominate nominations, but 1992 was the first year that any station other than ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS won a lead acting Emmy. Christopher Lloyd won that year for the Disney Channel’s AvonleaIt took nine more years for cable to take out another acting category: Edie Falco and James Gandolfini were the next cable or subscription network winners in 2001 for their work in HBO’s The Sopranos. Since then, 55% of the lead acting Emmys – 35 total – have gone to Amazon, AMC, BBC America, DirecTV, FX, HBO, Hulu, Showtime, TNT, and USA.

Quality Matters, According to the Tomatometer

Seems obvious, but still. Since 2015, the average Tomatometer score of the seasons for which actors won their Emmys is a jaw-dropping 94.6%.

The Categories We’ve Lost…

The awards started in 1949, but the first Emmy for lead actors in a recurring comedy/drama weren’t handed out until 1951 – to Gertrude Berg for The Goldbergs and Alan Young for The Alan Young Show. (Comedy and Drama were separated for acting in 1953.)

What kind of performer awards came before? Ventriloquist Shirley Dinsdale and her puppet were the first recipients of the Most Outstanding Television Personality Emmy in 1949. The 23-year-old won for her work on small television spots that featured her (and her puppet) wishing people happy birthday and announcing show schedules. In 1950, Ed Wynn and Milton Berle won the Most Outstanding Live Personality and Most Outstanding Kinescoped Personality Emmys for their work as rotating hosts on various talk shows, such as the Texaco Star Theatre, which aired on NBC.


Wanna Win? Then you better be 45, on an HBO or Showtime series,  and – not up against Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Veep (Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images; Justin M. Lubin/HBO)
(Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images; Justin M. Lubin/HBO)

Key Stats:

Fewest Winners, Most Multiple Wins

Twelve actresses have won 65% of the Emmys for comedy acting (nabbing 41 wins of 63 total), and the category has the most four-plus–time winners with Louis-Dreyfus (7), Candice Bergen (5), Helen Hunt (4), Mary Tyler Moore (5), and Lucille Ball (4) winning four or more statuettes.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus Has Dominated the 2010s

Louis-Dreyfus owns this category, with seven wins in 11 years. Her six consecutive wins (2012–2017) for HBO’s Veep, plus her one-off for The New Adventures of Old Christine 2016, make her the winning-est actor the Emmys has ever seen. The only other leading actresses to come close in this category, with five Emmys each, are Moore for her work in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1964, 1966) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973, 1974, 1976) and Bergen for Murphy Brown (1989, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995).

From Stay-At-Home Moms to Media Power Players

The most common occupation of the characters for which actresses won Emmys in this category is stay-at-home-mom (16 wins), but that figure is skewed by a number of sitcom mom roles that came before the 1980s — notably for Jane Wyatt, who won three times for Father Knows Best in the 1950s, and Jean Stapleton, who won for All in the Family in the 1970s. Patricia Heaton won for stay-at-home-mom Debra Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond in 2000 and 2001, and Felicity Huffman won the last award for playing a stay-at-home-mom in 2005 for Desperate Housewives.

The most common occupation since 1989 has been in media: Bergen’s Murphy Brown got her five wins; Hunt’s PR specialist Jamie from Mad About You earned her four wins; in 2004, Sarah Jessica Parker took home a trophy for columnist Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City; and Tina Fey won for TV writer and producer Liz Lemon from 30 Rock in 2008.

The “10 Year, 10 Different Winners” Decade

Ten different actresses in 10 different shows won the comedy acting award between 2002 and 2011 – names like Toni Collette (United States of Tara), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), and Debra Messing (Will & Grace) among them. It was the longest streak of non-consecutive wins in all the acting categories and is especially remarkable considering this category has the lowest percentage of winners-to-awards (a total of 34 actresses have won the 63 awards).

HBO Broke the Network Reign with Sarah Jessica Parker

ABC, CBS, and NBC ruled the category unchallenged for 53 years; CBS reigned supreme with 29 wins. It wasn’t until 2004, when Parker won for HBO’s Sex and the City, that things started to change. Since then, Showtime (Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara) and HBO (Veep) have dominated with eight total wins, while CBS has had to settle for just two more statuettes: one for Louis-Dreyfus for The New Adventures of Old Christine and one for Melissa McCarthy for Mike & Molly.

One Back-to-Back Winner in Every Decade

There has been at least one back-to-back winner in this category in every decade of the Emmys existence: Wyatt (1958-59), Shirley Booth (1962-63 for Hazel), Ball (1967-68), Stapleton (1971-72), Moore (1973-74), Jane Curtin (1984-85 for Kate & Allie),  Bergen (1989-90, 1994-95), Hunt (1996-99), Heaton (2000-01), and Louis-Dreyfus (2013-17).


Wanna Win? Consider playing a quirky 46-year-old with a Ph.D. on CBS or NBC.

Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory and at the Emmy awards (CBS; Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
(Photo by CBS; Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Key Stats:

Season 4 Is Your Emmy-Winning Sweet Spot

Actors in this category tend to win for later seasons of their series than actors and actresses in the other categories. The average win for actors in comedies happens in season 4.5, whereas the average season to win for comedy actresses is 2.4, dramatic actors is 2.5, and dramatic actresses is 2.7. Only 13 comedic actors (20% of the category’s winners) won for their show’s first season, which is well below the 33% average for all categories.

The Ph.D. Effect 

The most common profession of characters in this category may be journalists and writers, but academics have dominated in recent years. Actors playing Ph.D. holders in Frasier and 3rd Rock From the Sun, The Big Bang Theory, and Transparent have won 13 times in this category since 1994. Apparently, it pays to be smart and quirky in comedy.

The Big Three Networks Have Taken 89% of the Awards

ABC, NBC, and CBS own this category, with 55 wins out of a potential 62, and they continue to dominate in the 2000s and 2010s. Only Tony Shalhoub (USA Network’s Monk), Ricky Gervais (HBO’s Extras), Jeffrey Tambor (Amazon Prime’s Transparent), and Donald Glover (FX’s Atlanta) have been able to garner wins for cable and streaming. Expect the trend to change, though, with Glover and Barry’s Bill Hader (HBO) the hot tips to take out the category in 2018.

A “Rotten” Win for Jon Cryer

Jon Cryer’s 2012 win for the ninth season of Two and a Half Men — which sits at 42% on the Tomatometer — is quite the accomplishment: it is the lowest scoring of any TV season for which an actor or actress has won an Emmy (among those seasons we have season-level Tomatometer data for). The next second-lowest in all of the lead acting categories is the first season of The Newsroom, at 47% on the Tomatometer, for which Jeff Daniels nabbed Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 2013.


Wanna Win? Pass your 40th birthday, then pass the bar exam.

Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder and at the Emmys (ABC; Mark Davis/Getty Images)
(Photo by ABC; Mark Davis/Getty Images)

Key Stats:

2018-2017: A Decade of Laywers

In 2008, Glenn Close became the first lead actress ever to win an Emmy for playing a lawyer, which she did playing Patty Hewes in FX’s Damages. Close won again in 2009, then Julianna Margulies won two for playing Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, and Viola Davis won for playing attorney Annalise Keating in How to Get Away With Murder. That’s five lawyer wins in the last 10 years. By contrast, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series awards have gone to actors playing lawyers nine times, and those wins stretch back decades: the first came in 1959 for Raymond Burr playing Perry Mason.

Playing Doctors and Nurses – a Lot

There are more doctors and nurses in this category (eight) than in any other — and you can thank the medical-obsessed 1990s for this distinction: Dana Delany (China Beach), Kathy Baker (Picket Fences), and Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope) took home five combined awards for their work in the medical (acting) field.

The Whitest Group of Winners

This is the whitest of the Emmy acting categories, at 98.2%. Davis is the only non-white actor to have won in the category, for which 57 awards have been given out in total. If Sandra Oh were to win for Killing Eve this year, that percentage would drop to 96.6%; if she doesn’t — which is the more likely outcome, given the odds-on favorites — the percentage will stay essentially the same.

Cable and Streaming’s Favorite Category

Cable networks love this category because it has the widest distribution of awards. Actresses from 11 different networks, cable channels, and streaming services (ABC, AMC, BBC America, CBS, Fox, FX, Hulu, NBC, NET, PBS, and USA) have won Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. By contrast, the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series awards have been spread among just five networks, while seven networks and cable stations have shared the loot for actors in comedies.

A Super-“Fresh” Set of Winners

There is limited Tomatometer data available for series at the season level, particularly for older programs — but this category performs very well when you look at the data we do have available. We looked at the last five years of Tomatometer scores for winning seasons to make a comparison between categories. The 91.6% Tomatometer series average for the five series for which actresses won the award between 2013-2017 (Homeland, The Good Wife, How to Get Away With MurderOrphan Black, The Handmaid’s Tale) is the highest of all the categories during this time frame.

Sci-Fi and Genre Stars Fare Well 

Want to win an award for a genre or sci-fi show? This category is your best bet. Winners include Lindsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman), Mariette Hartley (The Incredible Hulk), Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Patricia Arquette (Medium), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), and Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale). The next best option if you want your acting-in-a-genre-series recognized is Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, thanks to John Lithgow, who was awarded three Emmys (1996, 1997, 1999) for his bonkers-good performance in NBC’s 3rd Rock From the Sun.


Wanna Win? Get into law enforcement — or become a criminal — and give it all you’ve got in season 1.

NYPD Blue star Dennis Franz (Ron Galella/WireImage; ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
(Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage; ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Key Stats:

  • Network with the most wins: ABC, 16 wins
  • Actors with the most wins: Dennis Franz (4 for NYPD Blue) and Bryan Cranston (4 for Breaking Bad)
  • Average age: 47
  • Race: 89.6% white
  • Most common role: law enforcement (cop, detective, consultant, private detective), 20 wins

More Individual Winners Than Any Other Category

Some 39 different actors have won the Drama award in the last 67 years, compared to Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama (32), Actor in a Comedy (35), and Actress in a Comedy (34).

Bad Guys Finish First

It truly is good to be a bad guy — at least lately it has been. As you might expect, in a category where names like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and NYPD Blue dominate, 71% of the winners are in law or law enforcement (police/military) or are white-collar professionals (lawyers, senators, and doctors). And the majority of them were upstanding fellas. The most recent 10 winners (2008-2017), however, have been recognized for playing complicated villains, or anti-heroes, in shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Mr. Robot, and Homeland.

Your Number 1 Chance at a Season 1 Win

A total of 27 actors won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for their first season of work — that’s 46% of the category’s winners, representing the highest wins for a first season among all of the categories.


The Wire received zero nominations in this category. Which is not a stat, but is plainly not cool.

It’s Been a 27 Years Since a Titular Character Won

Between Marcus Welby M.D. (1970), Columbo (1972, 1976), Kojak (1974), Barretta (1975), The Rockford Files (1977), Lou Grant (1978), and Kaz (1979), the 1970s was a good time for actors who played characters whose names formed the title of their series. Since then, the trend has become less fashionable with James Earl Jones winning the last lead acting drama award in this category titular role for his work in 1991’s Gabriel’s Fire. The Sopranos gets an honorable mention, but since it isn’t entitled The Tony Soprano Show, we didn’t count it.

Freshest Category Since 2001

The 91.4% Tomatometer average of the winning seasons since 2001 is the highest of all the categories. It helps that eight of the winning performances took place in 100% Tomatometer-rated seasons of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos24, Homeland, and Friday Night Lights. The only Rotten season for which an actor won in this category during this time frame is Daniels’ 2013 win for season 1 of The Newsroom, which has a 47% Tomatometer score.

There you have it! Hopefully this deep dive gives you an insight into who wins and gives you an advantage in your Emmy predictions pool. Remember, don’t bet against a 45-year-old performer who is nominated for their first season of work on a CBS show about former lawyers who become detectives.

Who do you think will win this year? Let us know!

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