With the Daytime Emmy Awards making a return to broadcast television this Friday night, Primetimer managing editor Joe Reid revisits the awardcast's pinnacle moment: the time Susan Lucci brought Madison Square Garden to its feet as she broke her legendary seventeen-year losing streak.
The soap opera All My Children debuted on ABC on January 5, 1970, and eleven days into its run premiered the character of Erica Kane. Played since that very first appearance by Susan Lucci, Erica would go on to become the signature and central character of All My Children, marrying the men and feuding with the women of Pine Valley for over 40 years. In 1978, Lucci got her first Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, but she lost out to Another World's Laurie Heineman. Three years later, Lucci was nominated again, this time losing to Judith Light for her performance as a homemaker-turned-hooker on One Life to Live. Over the ensuing two decades, Lucci would be nominated 17 more times, for a record 19 nominations in total, losing every single time. She lost to soap veterans, she lost to young upstarts, she lost to a fellow All My Children actress, and she lost to One Life to Live's Erika Slezak five times. At some point, Lucci's improbable string of futility started to grab headlines. As soap operas began to decline in popularity in the '90s, the one reliable annual storyline for the Daytime Emmys was wondering whether this might finally be the year that Lucci would win that elusive prize.
Then, in May of 1999, it finally happened. On her 19th nomination, Susan Lucci finally broke through and won Outstanding Lead Actress, leading to one of the loudest and most exuberant ovations at an awards ceremony ever. The Daytime Emmys got their moment in the sun, and Lucci at long last got her trophy. It's one of the most memorable and simply fun awards-show moments of all time, due in part to such disparate factors as Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O'Donnell, and the innate sense of drama possessed by all soap opera performers. It was the perfect recipe for a big moment.
Prologue: While Lucci spent most of her years of Daytime Emmy futility losing to great soap legends like Slezak, Kim Zimmer, and Helen Gallagher, her loss in 1998 to 29-year-old Guiding Light star Cynthia Watros (now best known for playing Libby on Lost) felt like a particularly pointed snub. Maybe she was just never meant to win. That sense of futility mixed with hopeful expectancy hung in the air as The Young and the Restless star Shemar Moore took the stage to present Outstanding Lead Actress.
The Cocky Presenter: The secret sauce to how great this whole moment is is that it involves soap opera stars, who are inherently dramatic by nature and have spent their careers learning how to seize a moment and get in that spotlight. So it was with Shemar Moore, who was already a popular daytime star at this point. You can see on his face as he approaches the podium that he knows this is the one moment of the show everybody cares about; the one moment when even casual viewers who might not care about soaps kept flipping back to the Emmys telecast so they wouldn't miss it. He knows it, and he laps up every bit of the spotlight for all it's worth. "It's time for the divas of the night," Moore says, while waving the envelope around teasingly. No need to rush the moment. Keep the camera on you as long as possible. The sixth diva was standing at that podium the whole time.
The Dramatic Competition: Even if you're not a soap fan, do yourself a favor and watch the clips of the nominated actresses that year. You don't want to miss the stoic horror of Jeanne Cooper's Katherine Chancellor on The Young and the Restless, contemplating losing her estate to Jill Abbott. And you really don't want to miss Kim Zimmer's tearful, touching monologue from what was actually a Guiding Light storyline where her character, Reva, was cloned (her clone was of course named "Dolly," in a nod to the cloned sheep that was in the news in the late '90s).
The Fateful Storyline: By the '90s, All My Children had really put their back into trying to get Lucci that Emmy win, specifically by giving her big, Emmy-worthy storylines. For years it seemed like "this" year would be the one: there was Erica's devastation over the death of her mother, Erica's heartbreaking baby-swap storyline, the high drama of Erica's clash with her long-lost, scheming daughter Kendall (Sarah Michelle Gellar). The storyline that ended up being the winner? Erica dealing with her teenage daughter Bianca's eating disorder, which nearly killed her.
The Cocky Presenter, Take Two: Okay, so back to Shemar Moore, who continues to milk every second of air time as he prepares to open the envelope. Once he does, in a split-second flash, you see him realize that this moment is going to be logged in the history books, and he takes one last opportunity to have A Moment, as he hollers, "THE STREAK IS OVER!" before calling out Lucci's name.
The Standing Ovation: Lucci's reaction is, of course, everything you want it to be: shocked and emotional and overwhelmed. But in this first instant, it's not her reaction that's the story; it's the absolute pandemonium that erupts in Madison Square Garden. One fun thing that sets the Daytime Emmys apart from most other awards shows is that they allow a certain number of fans to attend. Which means that there is rabid screaming throughout the show in support of their various soap opera faves. But with the Lucci win, the screaming isn't just coming from the back of the auditorium. The entire theater leaps to their feet, actors and actresses and crew and executives from across all (at the time) eleven daytime soaps. All the major stars are cheering and applauding; for whatever reason, the cameras keep cutting to then-talk-show-host Leeza Gibbons. The whole industry is on its feet to cheer for Susan Lucci. Like Shemar Moore, they know it's their moment too.
The Tearful Devotee: One of the most overwhelmed audience members at this point is Rosie O'Donnell, who in 1999 won her third consecutive (of eventually six) Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Talk Show Host. Rosie was a loudly professed super-fan of ABC soaps, and of Lucci in particular, so much so that Lucci guested on the very first episode of The Rosie O'Donnell Show in 1996. Rosie's reaction to Lucci's win is hugely emotional, with tears streaking her face as Lucci takes the stage. It was the perfect encapsulation of what anyone who'd invested themselves in Lucci's narrative was probably feeling at the time.
The Queen of All Media: Not to be outdone, of course, Oprah asserts herself in this moment, because of course she does. Oprah was actually the host of the '99 Daytime Emmys, so she was off in the wings when Lucci took the stage. But her hoots and hollers of support were so loud that Lucci has to turn and acknowledge her, and eventually the cameras cut away to Oprah doing her signature, arms-raised, bellow: "SUSAAAAAAAN!"
The Speech, At Last: From the moment Lucci takes the podium until her speech is finished, her acceptance clocks in at 4 minutes and 20 seconds, though the first 90 seconds of that is her waiting out the standing ovation. Once she begins, though, the speech has a structure and a dramatic arc that convinces you of just how many years she'd been perfecting this in her head. She talks about her 18 previous losses and how her kids would make her cards and gifts to make her feel better (a rather vulnerable admission that those previous losses really hurt), her introduction to All My Children as a day player, and her odd declaration that Erica was originally seen as merely "an ethnic type." Also, just take a look at Lucci's iron grip on that statue, as if at any moment, Slezak and Zimmer are going to rush the stage and try to take it away from her.
The Villainous Timekeepers: The Daytime Emmys producers are no fools; they know that this is the moment everybody is waiting for, and that this is the moment everybody's eyeballs are going to be on them. Lucci could have filibustered for a half hour and I can't imagine they'd have cued the orchestra to play her off. But the unseen speech timer is still ticking, and at nearly three minutes into the acceptance, Lucci notes, "They're telling me to wrap it up," which is a pure diva maneuver designed to get the audience on her side (think Julia Roberts admonishing "Stick Man" during her Oscar speech), and it works to perfection. The crowd HOWLS their disapproval, and the camera brilliantly cuts to Lucci's AMC co-star at the time, Kelly Ripa, who can clearly be seen saying "No!" No, Susan! Speak FOREVER!
The Last Hurrah: Lucci's closing remarks are a monologue worthy of the finest soap opera scribes, as she promises to never let down her fans, and that "I'm going back to that studio on Monday, and I'm gonna play Erica Kane for all she's worth!" It's a perfect capper to a deliciously indulgent speech that, improbably, lived up to 19 years' worth of expectations. Lucci would remain with All My Children until it was cancelled in 2011, and while she only received two further Daytime Emmy nominations after 1999 (she lost both), she got her moment. And it was THE moment. The single greatest moment in Daytime Emmys history. Just ask Rosie.
The Daytime Emmy Awards return to broadcast television this Friday, June 26 on CBS.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.