Trophy-giving is a fickle activity -- a function of timing and momentum as much as talent -- but it's less of an "accident" or passing fancy if a performer is able to lock down the triple crown of acting awards: the Tony, the Oscar and the Emmy. Eighteen people have done this. It's a rarified sphere of actors. Hilary Swank may have two Oscars (deserved, says I -- shut up), but she probably will never be grouped in the same category as these 18 people, whose versatile talent was able to thrive in three different media over the course of many years.
Who are they? You can probably think of one or two right off the bat. Let me help: They are seven men and 11 women. Seven of the 18 are still alive -- the youngest is 57, the oldest is 85. On the list, there are 10 Americans, five Brits, a Puerto Rican, a Swede and a Hepburn. I'll start profiling each of them next week, beginning with the first man to complete the triple crown (one of film's great character actors) and ending with the most recent joiner (an icon for 35 years and still delivering). When possible, I've reviewed the films and TV shows for which they won their Oscars and Emmys. Unfortunately, their performances on Broadway are lost to the ages, though I did see one triple crowner's Tony-winning turn in person in 2003 (the award was massively deserved, of course).
Why do this? Anyone who loves movies or pop culture loves the silly exhiliration of obsessing over awards, but identifying and appreciating the triple crowners is more useful than silly -- together, they paint a definitive portrait of accomplishment in the performing arts over the past 80 years. These 18 actors are/were blessed with both talent and the respect of their peers and critics. It's a panorama of skill and wattage. It's about great work admired greatly, and it says a lot about ourselves as connoiseurs. So let's celebrate 'em.
Five items before the series begins:
1. I'm just focusing on performers. Eight non-actors (all men) have also attained the triple crown: director Mike Nichols, writer-director-"actor" Mel Brooks, composers Marvin Hamlisch and Richard Rodgers, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, composer-conductor Ralph Burns, writer Sidney Sheldon and director-choreographer Bob Fosse, who turned the triple crown into a grand slam; Fosse won all three awards in 1973 (an Oscar for Cabaret, an Emmy for "Liza with a 'Z'" and two Tonys for "Pippin").
2. I'm not including performers who've attained the triple crown by winning in non-acting or non-competitive categories. For example, John Gielgud and Whoopi Goldberg have all three awards, but they got their Tonys for directing and producing, respectively. In addition to her two Oscars and five Emmys, Barbra Streisand was awarded a special Tony -- but it was a non-competitive "Star of the Decade" designation. Like an honorary Oscar, it doesn't count here.
3. Now, a word on toughness. Of the three, the Oscar is the hardest to pocket. It's given in the narrowest industry (the heavenly bodies really have to align for you to make it to the proverbial podium) and has the narrowest field (only 20 acting nomination slots per year, compared to 40 for the Tonys and a whopping 80 for the Emmys). The Emmy is, of course, the easiest; dozens of channels/networks provide limitless entrees into the pool, and performers in a recurring series have the chance to win the award every year they're on the air. The Tony falls somewhere in the middle. It's great for recognizing new and untested talent (people come out of nowhere to win), but it restricts itself to only three dozen venues (large theater houses) in just one city (New York). An actor might give the performance of his life in a small dive on the Lower East Side or in a regional theater in the Poconos or San Diego, but it won't count for a Tony. [We're not getting near the Grammys because they're ridiculous. The best music almost never wins, and there are 40,000 categories. Last year, I won Best Non-Musical Non-Recording by a Pale Journalist.]
4. With this scale of difficulty in mind, some luminaries are very close to the triple crown. Meryl Streep, who has a pair of Oscars and a pair of Emmys, hasn't been on Broadway since 1977 -- how is that possible? -- when she received her first and only Tony nomination. If she were to set foot on the proper stage today, she'd join the club instantly. Kevin Spacey, Mercedes Ruehl, Ellen Burstyn, Kevin Kline, Joel Grey and Judi Dench (who herself has a rich history on television) need an easy Emmy to join. Folks, just guest-star on "Two and a Half Men" and you're golden. [Grievance: Cloris Leachman (who has an Oscar and eight goddamn Emmys) could've easily joined the club if she was still attached to Mel Brooks' upcoming stage musical adaptation of Young Frankenstein. C'mon, Cloris.]
5. None of the 18 triple-crowners won their Emmy first. Perhaps this illustrates how hard it is to break out of TV into film and/or theatre. Eleven started off with the Tony, the remaining seven with the Oscar. The Emmy came last for all but four of them. Perhaps this illustrates how Emmys are treated like bonus footnotes -- garnishes, if you will -- on an established star's resume.
This series will launch a week from today -- a medley of aperitifs to contrast the creative sloth of August. Tune in throughout the month for thinkpieces (long and short) on the triple crowners. Be prepared to discuss not only the merits of the actors but also the validity of their awards. The discussion will no doubt take place at the intersection of affection ("God, I love her") and semantics ("God, he should not have won for that"). Before then and in between triple crown posts, there will be the usual grabass...