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”
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.