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11 Great Television Actors Who Have Never Won An Acting Emmy

Now that we live in a world where there are dozens of streaming services available to customers in addition to network and cable television, TV has become a respected medium for actors on par with film. Until about 20 or so years ago, when "The Sopranos" began airing on HBO, television was the minor leagues compared to the prestige of film and its many mega movie stars. Many actors, like George Clooney and Denzel Washington, began their careers on television and eventually became movie stars, but it used to be unheard of for actors to go from film to television unless they'd had a big career setback (Observer).

Nowadays, television holds just as much prestige as film and is oftentimes actually more lucrative (MovieWeb). Because television has become so much more respected and supported as an art form, recognition for work in television has also become a much bigger deal, and no television honors are more important than the Primetime Emmy Awards. Folks in media have been discussing Academy Award snubs for years, but there have been some pretty major Emmy acting snubs over the past decades that are just as egregious. Take for example Connie Britton, who has been nominated for her outstanding work on "Friday Night Lights," "American Horror Story," and "The White Lotus," but has yet to win (Emmys). Prepare to be very confused. 

1. Kerry Washington

Technically, Kerry Washington did win an Emmy in 2020, but it was strictly for her work as an executive producer. The former star of ABC's primetime hit, "Scandal," has never won an Emmy for acting, despite the fact that she has been nominated four times in the last 10 years (Wikipedia). Washington was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for "Scandal" two years in a row, losing to Claire Danes ("Homeland") in 2013 and Julianna Margulies ("The Good Wife") in 2014.

 It's not totally surprising that she didn't win for "Scandal." As a primetime soap/telenovela (NPR), "Scandal" never had the same kind of industry acclaim as prestige projects like "Homeland," but the fact that she didn't win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her portrayal of Anita Hill in 2016's  "Confirmation" is surprising. What it comes down to is Washington's competition: Danes, Margulies, and Sarah Paulson in 2016. All three had been critical darlings for a while by the time they won their own Emmys. 

2. Hugh Laurie

Hugh Laurie takes his work very seriously. When he was still working on American medical drama "House, M.D.," he would often request more takes than even the scene director in order to feel like he'd truly nailed his American accent (Entertainment Weekly). His attention to detail has paid off for his legacy, as many people consider his American accent to be one of the best ever delivered by a British actor (Insider). Aside from having a great American accent, High Laurie is also an excellent actor. 

His career originated in the British television industry, where he showed off his impeccable comedic chops in shows like "A Bit of Fry & Laurie." He then brought these skills with him across the pond when he took on the role of Dr. House. Part of what makes Laurie such an incredible actor is his ability to layer comedy and pathos into one performance — and to sustain that performance for eight seasons. It makes sense, then, that he was never the same once the show was finished. It's too bad he never received the formal recognition that he deserved for the role.

He has since worked on many other interesting projects, and received a total of eight Emmy acting award nominations (Wikipedia): six for "House, M.D.," one for his (terrifying) role in the limited series "The Night Manager," and one for his fantastic guest appearance in "Veep." 

3. Angela Lansbury

 "Murder, She Wrote" is an iconic television show that ran for 12 seasons on CBS from 1984 to 1996. "Murder, She Wrote" was a crime show wherein a retired widow, Jessica Fletcher, had developed a successful career as a mystery writer and assisted in real-life police investigations near her home of Cabot Cove, Maine. Angela Lansbury played the iconic Fletcher throughout, and was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the Primetime Emmys for every one of the show's seasons (Emmys). 

Lansbury received 18 Emmy acting nominations in total throughout her career but won nothing. She also received six other nominations for her performances at several Tony Awards ceremonies and a few limited series. She was also nominated thrice for an Academy Award and never won, though she eventually received an honorary one for her contributions to the industry (YouTube). 

"Murder, She Wrote" is one of the most famous crime serials of all time, and it really did sit apart from most of its predecessors (and a lot of its successors as well) in the genre because the main character was an older, down-to-earth woman, not a detective or cop by trade. While she didn't win an Emmy before she passed away in October 2022, maybe she'll someday be posthumously recognized for her work in television. 

4. Michael C. Hall

Michael C. Hall began his career in prestige television with his role as David Fisher in "Six Feet Under." In that show, he was a part of an ensemble cast, but he still received a nomination in 2001 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Hall didn't win an Emmy for "Six Feet Under," but after that show ended, he moved on to another fan and critic favorite called "Dexter."

Hall was nominated five times for his work as a psychopathic serial killer who killed only bad people, and the show itself was nominated for Outstanding Drama Series in 2011 (Emmys). "Dexter" was a television phenomenon, and quite unlike anything that had been on TV before. While other shows like "The Wire" and "The Sopranos" introduced television to a new level of violence and anti-heroism on screen and in our protagonists (NoFilmSchool), "Dexter" took those elements a step further and explored what it meant to be an inherently violent person trying not to make the world suffer. 

Dexter Morgan was a groundbreaking character for television (Slate), and without Michael C. Hall's excellent work as a serial killer with a learned conscience, "Dexter" never would have been as successful as it was. 

5. Sandra Oh

When "Grey's Anatomy" first aired on ABC in 2005, viewers were pretty immediately obsessed with its intense characters and medical plot lines. "Grey's Anatomy" launched super-producer Shonda Rhimes' career in television and brought actors like Katherine Heigl, Patrick Dempsey, and Sandra Oh into the spotlight (ETOnline). The ABC juggernaut has now been on for 19 seasons — probably several too many. Only a small fraction of the original cast remains, but for a long time, "Grey's Anatomy" was the standard for popular network TV drama. 

Sandra Oh, who played the intense, super-talented surgeon Cristina Yang, was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series at the Primetime Emmy Awards for "Grey's Anatomy" five years in a row, but never won. Oh's work as Eve Polastri on "Killing Eve" was then later nominated three times in a row for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series (2018-2020), but she still didn't win the gold. In fact, she lost to her "Killing Eve" costar Jodie Comer in 2019 much as she lost to her "Grey's Anatomy" costar, Katherine Heigl, in 2007. 

"Killing Eve" Seasons 1 and 2 were even more critically lauded than the first few seasons of "Grey's Anatomy." Sandra Oh played an MI5 agent setting out to catch female assassin Villanelle (Comer), and the show only just wrapped up this past year after its fourth season. Despite all of her great work on two incredibly popular dramas, Oh hasn't won an Emmy.

6. Michael K. Williams

"The Wire" was an HBO drama well ahead of its time (Variety) that ran for five seasons from 2002 to 2008. Creator David Simon produced an incredible show about race, class, and the American justice system with "The Wire," which has often been referred to as "anti-cop" (The Guardian). Over 200 critics from all over the world recently voted "The Wire" as the best television show of the 21st century so far (BBC), but it did not win a single Emmy Award while it was airing. 

It's important to mention "The Wire's" critical acclaim, because arguably the best performance in the show, that of actor Michael K. Williams, is a diamond among sapphires. Williams plays Omar Little, a neighborhood stick-up man with his own strict moral code and an extraordinary mind for strategy and street politics. Omar, one of the first openly gay, Black, and male characters depicted on television, was groundbreaking. Much of the lasting legacy of the character is thanks to Williams' incredibly nuanced performance. 

Williams brought gravitas, depth, and, most importantly, a surprising tenderness to the role, and there is probably no other actor on the planet who could have done a better job — yet he never won an Emmy. In fact, he was never even nominated for "The Wire," having received five Emmy nominations for his work on other projects like "The Night Of" and "Lovecraft County" (Wikipedia). Sadly, Williams passed away in September 2021. He was only 54 years old.

7. Kristen Bell

Another show that was critically acclaimed but unappreciated by many audiences and the Primetime Emmy Awards, "Veronica Mars," was almost as dark as "The Wire," but in a very different way. Kristen Bell starred as the titular character, a high school student who suffered the death of her best friend and was drugged and sexually assaulted at a party a few months later. 

In 2004, it was almost unheard of to have a female protagonist with such a dark backstory, but Bell handled the role with the confidence it required. Emmy voters typically don't take "teen-centric" shows seriously (PopSugar), and that was even more true back when "Veronica Mars" was on the air, as it didn't receive a single nomination despite its critical success. 

"The Good Place," on the other hand, netted 13 total Emmy nominations during its four-season run (Emmys), though Kristen Bell's work there also went un-nominated (Emmys). Bell's comedic timing is golden and she has the charisma and poise as an actor to hold her own as a co-lead with the great Ted Danson (who's been nominated at the Emmys 18 times and won twice [Emmys]), so it's a real shame she was never recognized for such an excellent show.

8. Steve Carell

The aughts were a pretty good decade for comedy, having given us all-time TV classics like "Parks and Recreation," "30 Rock," and of course, "The Office." "The Office," in particular, is an incredibly popular show. In 2020, seven years after its series finale in 2013, "The Office" was the most streamed show in the country according to Nielsen (Variety) — and remember, we all had a lot of time for streaming in 2020 (LA Times). 

It's impossible to talk about "The Office" without talking about Michael Scott, Steve Carell's immature, foot-in-mouth branch manager with a heart of gold. Michael Scott was voted the greatest television character of the 21st century by The Ringer, and is widely considered by many other critics, publications (IndieWire), and fans to be exceptional. All anyone has to do to understand the comedic excellence of Michael Scott is watch Season 6, Episode 12 of "The Office," "Scott's Tots."  

Steve Carell never won an Emmy for his work as Michael Scott (Emmys). He was nominated six years in a row (2006-2011) for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy, but he lost to, in order, Tony Shalhoub ("Monk"), Ricky Gervais ("Extras"), Alec Baldwin ("30 Rock") twice, and Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory") twice. Most of these performances were also award-worthy, but none of them have come close to receiving the same level of cultural recognition as Steve Carell's Michael Scott (Insider).

9. Sofia Vergara

Sofia Vergara was the highest-paid woman in television from 2013 to 2020 (Forbes). In 2020, Sofia Vergara was earning $500,000 per episode of "Modern Family," the very popular ABC sitcom that launched her career and made her a household name. Vergara's character on "Modern Family," Gloria Pritchett, had a similar background to herself; having emigrated from Colombia to America and found various levels of personal and professional success thanks to her talent and charisma. 

Vergara was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series at the Primetime Emmy Awards four years in a row (2010-2013), but she never actually went home with the statue, despite the otherwise widespread success of "Modern Family" overall at the Emmy Awards (Emmys). Over the course of its 11 seasons, "Modern Family" received 85 awards and nominations, with Vergara's costars, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson all winning in their acting categories — most of them more than once (Emmys). 

Gloria was "Modern Family's" signature character, the one who was a little bit different from everything else in the show. Even though Vergara's portrayal of Gloria can often be a very complex and contradictory character for many folks who identify as Latinx (Mic), Vergara still deserved to win an Emmy for her mad comedic chops.

10. Lena Headey

Cersei Lannister from HBO's megahit "Game of Thrones" is a character who is very easy to hate. She commits adultery and incest regularly, orchestrates the deaths of many other beloved characters throughout the show, and, as her brother Tyrion once remarks, "[is] not as smart as [she thinks she is]." Yet, she's always just sympathetic enough — just barely human and mother enough — to never seem flat or completely predictable (Complex). A lot of that is thanks to Lena Headey.

Headey, whose work as Cersei on "Game of Thrones" was nominated at the Primetime Emmy Awards five times from 2014-2019 (Emmys), has always infused the character with even more depth than can be found in George R.R. Martin's iteration from his series of novels upon which the show is based. She never actually won an Emmy for "Game of Thrones," and yet she is largely responsible for one of the most memorable TV villains of all time.

One of Headey's greatest strengths as an actor is her ability to generate chemistry with her scene partners. Her work with other actors like Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance, and Mark Addy generated some of the best scenes of the entire show.

11. Issa Rae

Despite the fact that "Insecure" has broken a lot of barriers for women of color in television, Issa Rae — the HBO hit's creator, lead writer, and actor — never actually won an Emmy for any of that work. She absolutely deserved recognition as a writer and a creator, but she was also nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series three times while "Insecure" (which only just finished its last season in 2022) was running on HBO (Emmys). 

Exceptional acting in comedy is not easy. Not only do those actors need to portray and project three-dimensional, believable characters in order to deliver a good performance, as is the case with any acting role, but they also need to be funny. Generating joy, relatability, and laughter from audiences who grow more discerning by the day is challenging. 

Issa Rae did that on every episode of "Insecure" while also smashing about half a dozen glass ceilings, and she really, really should have won one of those Emmys. Luckily, Issa Rae is only 38 years old and her career has really just started gaining momentum, so hopefully her talent will be recognized in the future.