There’s a certain familiarity to the sort of performances that have landed actors Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmys: legal dramas and police procedurals dominate the first few decades of the awards show history. Then, more recently, we see a shift to complicated, morally ambiguous anti-heroes taking center stage.
Until the 2000s, every winner and virtually every nominee hailed from the main four networks (ABC, NBC, Fox, and CBS); only then did cable channels get a look in. But regardless of where they came from, there’s an incredible depth to the roster of Lead Actor Emmy winners.
10Dennis Franz, “NYPD Blue”
The ’90s featured a number of cop dramas, but in terms of popularity and critical acclaim, “NYPD Blue” stood head and shoulders above the rest. It ran for twelve seasons, was famous for pushing the envelope in terms of graphic content and nudity on network television, and made a critical darling out of Dennis Franz. As Andy Sipowicz, he was the core of the show, the only one who was a main cast member for the entire run, and he won four Emmys for his work.
9Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”
While many of the shows on this list feature a lead actor in a narrative that places them firmly in the center of the action, “The Americans” is very much about a partnership. Alongside Keri Russell (Rhys’s real-life partner) as his wife and fellow Russian spy, Matthew Rhys brings to life a deeply conflicted sleeper agent. More importantly, he adds depth to a complex relationship that is based in fabrication but at its core very real.
8William Daniels, “St. Elsewhere”
A gritty Boston hospital in the 1980s, or the active imagination of a child with autism? The world may never know. The one thing that’s certain, however, is that “St. Elsewhere” was a bonafide hit throughout the 1980s, with William Daniels as its biggest star winning two Emmys for his work as Mark Craig. The prototypical arrogant surgeon, Daniels portrays the hospital’s mentor and tormenter with elegant irritability that, to this day, remains unmatched.
7Tom Selleck, “Magnum P.I.”
Given the number of high-quality performances and television shows in this category, it’s surprising how many have been forgotten after only a few years. Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum in “Magnum, P.I.” is not one of them. If we’re going to award special accommodation for performances reaching icon level, Selleck has to be included here — his work as a tough but cool private investigator with a great mustache is unforgettable.
6Raymond Burr, “Perry Mason”
Among the long history of legal dramas, “Perry Mason” stands as one of the unassailable figures of early television, and that’s largely thanks to the assured performance of Raymond Burr in the eponymous role. The show ran for an impressive nine seasons during the late 1950s and early 1960s, winning Burr two Emmy awards, and was rebooted during the 1970s. Even now, there’s a revival series in the works at HBO, proving the legacy of both the show and, most especially, Burr’s work in building such a strong and memorable character.
5Peter Falk, “Columbo”
Who doesn’t love a highly intelligent detective who plays up his own idiosyncrasies to wrong-foot his adversaries? The strengths of “Columbo” are entirely down to the skill of Peter Falk in the lead role, his ad-libs, and bits of business that add flavor to the character. This fast-talking master of misdirection was an audience favorite, leading the show to run for ten seasons and netting Falk two Emmys in 1972 and 1976.
4Teddy Savalas, “Kojak”
The bald head, the trademark lollipop, the objectively abusive interrogation tactics — Teddy Savalas as Kojak created an image that’s recognizable even to people who have never seen the show. Every television series with a cop from the wrong side of the tracks who plays by his own rules owes a debt of gratitude to “Kojak.” It certainly didn’t invent the anti-hero, but it played a large role in the popularization of the archetype on TV.
3Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”
Donald Draper is a charmingly dysfunctional enigma of a man, and you don’t get half the effectiveness of the character without Jon Hamm. An ode to the heavy-drinking, womanizing matinee idol of yesteryear, Hamm effortlessly combines charisma, creative intelligence, and hyper-masculinity tinged with genuine self-loathing. “Mad Men” is a quintessential ensemble piece, but none of it works without Jon Hamm as Don Draper, the series’ fragile heart.
2Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”
As Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” Bryan Cranston displays an impressive adeptness with duality. He’s always been so good at playing the soft, mild-mannered type who lets himself get walked all over, but he’s also capable of extreme darkness that, once glimpsed, is shocking and intimidating. This allows audiences to connect with Walter White, and then follow him willingly down a truly monstrous path. With six Emmy nominations and four wins, Walter White is Cranston’s most iconic role and arguably one of the most memorable television characters of the 21st century.
1James Gandolfini, “The Sopranos”
After earns nominations six times and winning three Emmys for his performance as Tony Soprano on “The Sopranos,” James Gandolfini easily earns the top spot. As an anxiety-ridden gangster who enters therapy to learn how to process his emotions, Gandolfini creates an entirely new kind of leading man. Not only is he an anti-hero, but his emotional vulnerability displays a different version of masculinity that television viewers hadn’t seen before. In the years after “The Sopranos” ended, a new crop of leading men grappling with traditional definitions of manhood began to receive awards attention, with the influence of Tony Soprano is cemented in television history.