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Alec Baldwin and more Emmy winners have stage roots

Linda Winer
Newsday (MCT)

NEW YORK — Much has been said, especially lately, about the importance of TV and movie stars to the allure and the bottom line of New York theater.

So it seems fair to point out — without the tiniest cringe of defensiveness — that most of the actors who won the big Emmys recently were stars on Broadway and Off-Broadway first.

I'm not talking about the usual hey-I-know-them jolt of recognition that comes with staring at the television more than anyone really should admit. Everyone knows, for example, that part of the fun of "Law & Order," in all its reruns and incarnations, involves identifying New York stage actors — look, there's the baby Philip Seymour Hoffman as a high school delinquent; gosh, Cynthia Nixon's scary with a multiple-personality disorder.

But the number of theater people suddenly clutching Emmys is extraordinary. And I'm not even counting the astonishingly nimble and endearing Neil Patrick Harris, who achieved his post-"Doogie" legitimacy on Broadway in 2004 as Lee Harvey Oswald in Stephen Sondheim's thorny musical, "Assassins."

This year, just about everyone except Tina Fey appears to have sprung, fully formed, from some mysterious place where prize-winning TV talents are grown. We know where Alec Baldwin began — as the creepy young thug in "Loot" in 1986 and, four years later, as the dashing young bridegroom of the dewy Mary-Louise Parker in Off-Broadway's "Prelude to a Kiss."

But what about the less famous new stars sweeping most of the other major acting Emmys? From where could they have come, these skillful and amusing people now whooshing into the talent pool on network and cable TV?

Cherry Jones, who won best supporting actress in a drama for her portrayal of America's female president in "24," was an Off-Broadway luminary before she won her first Tony Award in 1995 as the hopeful spinster in "The Heiress" and another four years ago as the skeptical nun in "Doubt." (She was also, incidentally, the first out-lesbian Broadway star, years before Harris has finally found comparable acceptance for men in Hollywood.)

Michael Emerson — supporting actor in a drama for portraying the leader of the Others in "Lost" — was at least as riveting Off-Broadway a dozen years ago as the embattled writer in "Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde." Emerson also has an Emmy for "The Practice," and is married to Carrie Preston, who played daughter Miranda to Patrick Stewart's "Tempest" on Broadway in 1995 and is now Arlene, the single-mom waitress in "True Blood."

Kristin Chenoweth — supporting actress in a comedy for the canceled "Pushing Daisies" — won her Tony as the indomitably bratty Sally in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" in 1999, got her tween cred as the indomitably stuck-up Glinda in "Wicked" in 2003 and has been a frequent, indomitable favorite at the Encores! series of revivals.

Toni Collette — this year's upset as lead actress in a comedy for Showtime's own multiple-personality showcase, "United States of Tara" — began in film. But she burst into theatrical consciousness nine years ago as Queenie, the flapper sex bomb in "The Wild Party" on Broadway. It was a big role for a New York stage newcomer, who, with sensual generosity and a great snarl, held the spotlight against such world-class theatrical carnivores as Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt.

Tony Shalhoub — who didn't win this year but has three Emmys for "Monk" — was already hilarious in 1985 when he played one of the "Pigeon sisters" in a gender-reversed production of "The Odd Couple" starring Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers as "Oscar" and "Felix."

This brings us back to Baldwin, whose deliciously unredemptive TV mogul in "30 Rock" beat Shalhoub's deliciously obsessive-compulsive detective for the second year. Baldwin's career has been revived stupendously from the lows of the late '90s, when his Macbeth, with Angela Bassett, could have been mistaken for a relative of Fred Flintstone.

He also played a weirdly comical Stanley Kowalski to Jessica Lange's bizarrely minimalist Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway in 1992. (Lange also won an Emmy two weeks ago.) Some fellow named James Gandolfini played one of Stanley's raucous poker buddies.

You may have heard. That guy is on Broadway now, too.


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