11 Iconic Moments from the Emmy Awards — 1960 to 2020

From unforgettable speeches to unimaginable fashion choices, here are some inspiring moments from the not-always-conventional Emmy Awards.

On Sunday, the 2020 Emmy Awards went virtual in a live telecast hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, at a close-to-empty Staples Center in LA. There was no red carpet or audience, but that’s not to say it wasn’t memorable. More than one hundred nominees tuned in from around the globe, many using DIY studios at home. Some were dressed to the nines, but sweats were also welcome.

Zendaya at the 72nd Emmy Awards
Zendaya speaks on stage during the 72nd Emmy Awards telecast. Image via Uncredited/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Zendaya made headlines with a magnificent Christopher John Rogers dress and dazzling purple necklace, while Gabrielle Union wore a shower cap while being “video-bombed” by her husband Dwyane Wade. Both looks were iconic. Schitt’s Creek won big, and so did Watchmen. Jimmy Kimmel started an actual fire during a gag, and Jennifer Aniston saved the day with a fire extinguisher.

Jennifer Aniston and Jimmy Kimmel Presenting at the 2020 Emmy Awards
A handout photo made available by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences shows Jennifer Aniston (left) and Jimmy Kimmel (right) presenting the award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series during the 72nd annual Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony. Image via EMMY AWARDS/​HANDOUT/​EPA-EFE/​Shutterstock.

In short, the virtual Emmy Awards made for an unprecedented evening, and one for the history books. In honor of the event, we wanted to take a look at inspiring moments from decades past. From landmark wins to unforgettable speeches, from red carpet moments to fashion icons, we’ve included something that will spark a memory for everyone.

1. Harry Belafonte’s Victory (1960)

Harry Belafonte Winning an Emmy Award
Harry Belafonte, the first African-American to win a Television Academy Emmy, accepts the golden statuette. Image via Anonymous/​AP/​Shutterstock.

On June 20th, 1960, the iconic singer, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte became the first African-American person to win an Emmy for his work on the TV special Tonight with Belafonte. It wasn’t the first time he’d made history within the last decade. In 1956, his album Calypso earned the title of the first LP to sell a million copies. It wasn’t the last, either, as in 1987, he would be named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for his work in human rights. In 1994, he received the National Medal of Arts.

A confidant and supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte was also a major player in the Civil Rights Movement. Four years before his Emmy win, he appeared alongside Coretta Scott King and Duke Ellington at the “Salute to Montgomery” fundraiser. A year later, he participated in the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. In 1968, he become an executor of Dr. King’s estate.

Later, Belafonte would reflect on the importance of representation in Hollywood and its relationship to the larger Civil Rights Movement. “If we could only change America, it would necessarily force Hollywood to change its perception of black people,” he said. As the struggle for equality persists on a national stage, his life’s work remains as important as ever.

2. Cicely Tyson’s Moment (1974)

Cicely Tyson Poses with Her Emmy Awards
Cicely Tyson poses with her Emmy statuettes at the annual Emmy Awards presentation in Los Angeles, Ca. Tyson won for her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Image via AP/​Shutterstock.

Decades before she received her Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary Academy Award, Cicely Tyson starred in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, telling the story of a woman who, after being born into slavery, joins the Civil Rights Movement. Her performance earned her not one but two Emmy awards. The drama itself won the Best Special Program of the Year award, while Tyson stunned in a now-iconic floral print gown.

Hall Holbrook and Cicely Tyson Win an Emmy
Hal Holbrook and Cicely Tyson hold the Emmy statuettes they won from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, in Los Angeles. They were named Best Actor and Actress of the year. Image via David F Smith/​AP/​Shutterstock.

“I never knew any of my grandparents,” the actor would tell The Hollywood Reporter in 2019. “And, to me, Jane was the grandparent who might have been.” This year, at ninety-five, Tyson carried the distinction of being the oldest acting Emmy nominee for her performance in How to Get Away with Murder. It was her sixteenth Emmy nomination to date.

Hal Holbrook and Cicely Tyson at the Emmy Awards
Hal Holbrook and Cicely Tyson pose with their Emmy statuettes from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at the Emmy Awards presentation in Los Angeles, Ca. Image via AP/​Shutterstock.

3. Alan Alda’s Cartwheel (1979)

Alan Alda Accepts an Emmy
Alan Alda attends the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ 31st Primetime Emmy Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, Ca. Image via Television Academy/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

When Penny Marshall announced that Alan Alda had won the Emmy for writing on M*A*S*H, the delighted actor stood up and cartwheeled as he made his way to the stage to accept. He had already won twice for acting and directing the series, and was thrilled to receive those, as well. However, the writing Emmy carried special significance, as he’d wanted to be a writer his whole life. “I was really, really happy,” he’d later remark.

Best Writer Alan Alda
Alan Alda wins an Emmy for Best Writer. Image via Television Academy/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Today, Alda has the unique distinction of being the only person to win acting, writing, and directing trophies for work on the same series. “When I was eighty, I said to myself, ‘I wonder if I can still do a cartwheel?’” he told CBC Radio in 2018. “So, I did one, and my grandson Jake videoed it and I put it on Twitter, because it’s one of the most pathetic things you have ever seen. I actually made it all the way around. But not very gracefully.”

On Twitter, he joked that he planned to try again at eighty-five.

4. Cybill Shepherd’s High Tops (1985)

Cybill Shepherd at the Emmys
Cybill Shepherd wears an elegant gown and high-tops to the 1985 Emmys. Image via Shutterstock.

In 1985, the actress and model Cybill Shepherd walked the Emmys’ red carpet in a strapless black gown, black opera gloves, and Reebok sneakers. “I looked at my orange high-tops and my assistant said, ‘Cybill, don’t even think about it,’” she would later reminisce. “When I walked in, half the women were jealous of how comfortable I was, and the other half loved me for being honest with my body.”

Cybill Shepherd Shows off Her Reeboks
Actress Cybill Shepherd shows off her Reebok sneakers at the Emmy Awards in Pasadena, Ca. Image via Liu Heung Shing/​AP/​Shutterstock.

The star had no time for heels. As she later told People magazine, “I won’t ruin my feet.” During photo ops, she made sure her shoes were visible beneath her gown. Unsurprisingly, Reebok sales boomed following her debut.

5. Diahann Carroll’s Gown (1985)

Actress Diahann Carroll
Diahann Carroll at the 1985 Emmy Awards. Image via Bei/​Shutterstock.

No Emmys roundup would be complete without mention of the iconic Diahann Carroll, who made fashion history both on screen as Dominique Deveraux on Dynasty and off-screen on the red carpet. This high-slit gown, which she wore in 1985, was no exception.

Actress Diahann Carroll's Iconic Gown
Actress Diahann Carroll at the Emmy Awards in Pasadena, Ca. Image via Ut Nick Ut/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Throughout her career, Carroll would be nominated for four Emmy Awards, in addition to an Oscar nomination and Tony Award. She was, in fact, the first African-American woman to win a Tony for Best Actress. She passed away last year at the age of 84, leaving behind a powerful legacy for Hollywood actors to come.

Earlier this year, Carroll’s wardrobe again made headlines when 150 select items from her estate were put up for auction at Bonhams, including a few dazzling high-slit black gowns like the one she wore in 1985.

6. Ted Danson’s Award (1990)

Ted Danson was nominated eight times for his work on Cheers before he finally took home the trophy for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1990, prompting audience members to stand from their seats. “I guess this means you’ll be saying ‘You were robbed’ to some other boy,” he quipped.

Ted Danson Wins Lead Actor
Ted Danson wins Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for the 1990 Emmy Awards. Image via Bei/​Shutterstock.

According to a story that ran in the Los Angeles Times at the time, Danson was among the happiest of the award winners that year. He told reporters he’d carry the award everywhere. “It’s new to my body,” he told the press. “It feels funny.”

Of course, that feeling would become more familiar over time, as Danson would win again for his performance on Cheers in 1993. Like Cicely Tyson, he had a spot among this year’s nominees, as well, this time for his performance in The Good Place. It was his seventeenth Emmy nomination.

7. Sarah Jessica Parker’s Dress (2000)

Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker at the 2000 Emmy Awards
Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker at the 2000 Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Ca. Image via Stewart Cook/​Shutterstock.

In 2000, Sarah Jessica Parker channeled her Sex and the City character Carrie Bradshaw with a ballerina-esque pink dress by Oscar de la Renta. While not every fashion critic at the time loved the gown, it’s since earned its place as one of the most memorable looks in awards show history.

Best Actress Nominee Sarah Jessica Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker, Best Actress nominee for the TV show Sex In The City, arrives at the 52nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards with her husband Matthew Broderick. Image via Michael Caulfield/​AP/​Shutterstock.

“I remember the first time I was invited to Mr. de la Renta’s office and asked if he might build a dress for me for the 2000 Emmys,” the actor told The Hollywood Reporter four years later, after the designer’s passing. “It turned out to be a pink dress with a feathered skirt that people had a lot of opinions about — mostly because I tied a big piece of tulle on my arm. I can’t remember how I had the courage to be friends with him — he was so otherworldly, in a way.”

8. Laverne Cox’s Nomination (2014)

Actress Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Ca. Image via Broadimage/​Shutterstock.

In 2014, Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy after earning a nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Sophia Burset in Orange Is the New Black. The night before the nominees were announced, she’d closed her eyes and gone to sleep, content that the show would be nominated, but not expecting a nomination for herself — until she woke up the next morning to see the news.

Actress Laverne Cox Posing at the 2014 Emmy Awards
Actress Laverne Cox posing in an elegant, floor length gown at the 2014 Emmy Awards. Image via Broadimage/​Shutterstock.

She shared the nomination with trans people far and wide, citing the need for public policy and support for trans citizens across the country. “I was told many times that I wouldn’t be able to have a mainstream career as an actor because I’m trans, because I’m Black, and here I am,” she told TIME of the nomination, shortly after appearing on the magazine’s cover. “And, it feels really good.”

In 2014, Cox wowed in a custom white Marc Bouwer gown and Fred Leighton diamond jewels. She was nominated again this year.

9. Viola Davis’s Speech (2015)

Actress Viola Davis
Viola Davis accepts the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away With Murder at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Ca. Image via Alex Berliner/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Viola Davis has given some of the most powerful acceptance speeches in Hollywood history, and the 2015 Emmys, during which she became the first Black woman to win the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, numbered among them. On the way up, she embraced fellow leading lady Taraji P. Henson, who was nominated for her performance in Empire and whom Davis would later mention in her speech.

Taraji P. Henson Embraces Viola Davis
Taraji P. Henson (left) embraces Viola Davis before she walks on stage to accept the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away With Murder from Adrien Brody at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards. Image via Chris Pizzello/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

As Davis received a standing ovation for her work in How to Get Away with Murder, she said, “Let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” She dedicated the award to all the writers, actors, and people “who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be Black.”

Outstanding Lead Actress Viola Davis
Viola Davis accepts the award for Outstanding Lead Actress. Image via Phil Mccarten/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

10. Glenn Weiss’s Proposal (2018)

Glenn Weiss Proposes to His Girlfriend, Jan Svendsen
Image via Danny Moloshok/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.
Glenn Weiss Proposing to Jan Svendsen
Glenn Weiss proposes to his girlfriend, Jan Svendsen, after accepting the award for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Ca. Image via Chris Pizzello/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

When Glenn Weiss received his award for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special, he took the opportunity to remember his mother, who’d passed away just two weeks earlier, and to propose to his then-girlfriend Jan Svendsen. Declaring, “You wonder why I don’t like to call you my girlfriend? Because I want to call you my wife,” he dropped to one knee on live television, while giving her the ring his father had given to his mother more than six decades before. She said yes, and the crowd went wild. 

Glenn Weiss Proposes to Jan Svensen
Glenn Weiss proposes to his girlfriend at the 70th Emmy Awards. Image via Vince Bucci/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

11. Regina King’s T-Shirt (2020)

Regina King Accepting an Emmy
Regina King accepts the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for Watchmen during the 72nd Emmy Awards telecast. Image via Uncredited/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

Even though this year’s awards were virtual, they played host to plenty of unforgettable fashion moments. One of the most moving of the night happened when Regina King paid tribute to Breonna Taylor while accepting her Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie. Tuning in via Zoom from Santa Fe, she wore a graphic T-shirt featuring the late 26-year-old’s portrait, along with the words “SAY HER NAME.”

Regina King Interview
This video grab captured during the 72nd Emmy Awards Media Center, shows Regina King being interviewed about her win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for Watchmen. Image via Uncredited/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

The shirt was made by the female-powered lifestyle brand Phenomenal in partnership with the Breonna Taylor Foundation, with all profits from sales going to the Foundation. Pairing the shirt with a hot pink pantsuit from Schiaparelli, King urged viewers to make a voting plan. Finally, she honored the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away two days earlier. “Be a good human,” the actor urged. “And rest in power RGB.”

Cover image via Phil Mccarten/​Invision/​AP/​Shutterstock.

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