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8 of the Greatest Moments in Emmy History

For more than 70 years, the Emmy Awards have annually recognized achievements in television. The name “Emmy” was inspired by “Immy,” the nickname for an image orthicon, a type of camera tube used in television, and the winged statuette presented to winners represents the "muse of art uplifting the electron of science."

The first Emmys ceremony took place at the Hollywood Athletic Club on January 25, 1949, honoring Los Angeles-area programming. Only six trophies were presented. In 1955, it was broadcast for the first time nationally, and in the ‘70s, the Emmys separated into several ceremonies including primetime, daytime, and sports. Since then, the Emmys, which are voted on by members of the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences, have grown to become “TV’s biggest night.” Today, nearly 400 statuettes are manufactured for the primetime Emmys and in 2000, a record 21.8 million people tuned into the broadcast.

With the advent of premium cable, reality shows, and streaming services, the Emmys continuously update — and subsequently retire — categories to adapt to the evolving landscape. For example, reality TV was recognized for the first time in 2003, when the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program category made its debut, and streaming giant Netflix first began receiving nominations in 2013.

Here are eight of the Emmys' most spectacular moments in their long history.

1960: Harry Belafonte Makes History as the First African American Recipient

Harry Belafonte holding an Emmy in 1960.
Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

In 1960, Harry Belafonte became the first Black Emmy winner when he was awarded Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series for his television special, Tonight With Belafonte (1959).

As an activist in the civil rights movement and a close ally of Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte understood the significance of his accomplishment at a time when Black Americans were not allowed to vote freely or live where they wished. "I am glad to have broken a barrier and so many since," Belafonte said in 2021. "The diversity today in television is long overdue."

1962: Jackie Kennedy Is Awarded an Honorary Emmy

First Lady Jackie Kennedy stands before television cameras in the state dining room of the White House, where she is giving a televised tour.
Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

In 1961, First Lady Jackie Kennedy oversaw a restoration of the White House that added many pieces of historic significance. After the $2 million refurbishment was complete, she showcased the finished product on the televised A Tour of the White House on February 14, 1962. During the broadcast, she shared changes made to the state dining room, the Lincoln Bedroom, and more.

Fifty-six million viewers tuned in to see the First Lady and updated White House. The one-of-a-kind content resulted in Kennedy being given an honorary Emmy. Her win was a first for a First Lady — and she remains the only First Lady to date to receive an Emmy.

1979: Alan Alda Does a Spontaneous Cartwheel

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Every Emmy winner must be excited, but the exuberance Alan Alda displayed in 1979 was off the charts. He'd already won Emmys for acting on and directing M*A*S*H, but that year he finally won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for the M*A*S*H episode "Inga." While walking to accept the award, Alda couldn’t hold in his feelings and did a cartwheel in front of the stage.

"The writing one meant so much,” Alda said in 2016. “I wanted to be a writer and a good writer since I was 8 years old. To get an Emmy for writing meant so much that that was really spontaneous when I did the cartwheel on the way to the stage."

1985: “The Great Imposter” Tries to Hijack an Award

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At the Emmy Awards in 1985, Betty Thomas of Hill Street Blues won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. But as she was making her way to the stage, her statuette was intercepted by Barry Bremen, otherwise known as "The Great Imposter." He'd previously snuck into sporting events and cheerleader tryouts, and that night he decided to steal an Emmy. He later said he'd targeted Thomas because she wasn't fast enough on her way to the podium. Bremen was arrested for his stunt but ended up just paying a $175 fine.

1999: Susan Lucci Finally Wins an Emmy After 19 Nominations

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Susan Lucci portrayed Erica Kane on All My Children from the show's start in 1970. In 1978, Lucci's work resulted in her first Daytime Emmy nod for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. She didn't win that year...and her losing streak would continue for 18 straight nominations. Those losses drew more and more attention; Lucci's bad Emmy luck was even the focus of her monologue when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1990.

In 1999, Lucci was nominated for the 19th time. At the ceremony on May 21, presenter Shemar Moore said, "The streak is over…Susan Lucci!" The crowd gave Lucci a standing ovation for the win. “I truly never believed this would happen,” Lucci joked in her acceptance speech.

2013: Merritt Wever Delivers an 11-Word Acceptance Speech

Merritt Wever at the microphone onstage during the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards.
Credit: Michael Tran/ FilmMagic via Getty Images

Awards shows are notorious for long speeches in which the winner thanks everyone from their parents to their mail carrier. Actress Merritt Wever took another approach in 2013 when she won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role on Nurse Jackie. A stunned Wever arrived at the podium and said, "Thanks so much. Thank you so much. I gotta go. Bye." After delivering those 11 words, she walked off the stage and into Emmys history with one of the shortest acceptance speeches ever.

Wever explained afterward, "I was just really surprised, so I hadn’t prepared anything. I was really caught off guard. I think I was overwhelmed and I got a little flooded and then my mind went blank and it seemed like things were quiet for a really long time. So I didn’t really have any other choice!"

2015: Viola Davis Breaks Barriers With Her Lead Actress Win

Actress Viola Davis posing in the press room at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards with her award/
Credit: Mark Davis via Getty Images

In 2015, How to Get Away With Murder star Viola Davis became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. In her acceptance speech, she quoted Harriet Tubman: "In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can't seem to get there no how. I can't seem to get over that line." Davis then declared, "And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

2020: The Emmys Go Virtual

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe for people to crowd together, so for the first time in their history, the Emmys went virtual. There were still awards to be given out, so the ceremony had presenters in hazmat suits head to stars' houses. However, this set-up meant that those who didn't win had to watch their hazmat-suited presenter wave, then walk away with what could've been their Emmy. Ramy Youssef, who was nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Ramy on Hulu, shared the strange, yet hilarious, experience on Twitter in a video captioned, "When you lose the Emmy."

Featured image credit: Joe Seer/ Shutterstock

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