TV Academy's John Leverence Reflects On Evolution Of The Emmys
Dr. John Leverence, senior vice president of awards at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, poses for a portrait at the Television Academy, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, in Los Angeles. Leverence has overseen the Emmys Awards for the past 38 years. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
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In 38 years of managing the Emmy Awards — more than half its 70-year history — John Leverence has faced everything from the demands of a changing TV industry to ticket nightmares to a statuette guilty of causing bodily harm.

As the TV academy's senior vice president for awards, he's seen the Emmy categories double from about 60 to 122, entries balloon from 1,500 to 9,000, and the ceremony outgrow 3,000- and 5,000-seat theaters and pack its current venue, the 7,100-seat Microsoft Theater.

Despite his long tenure, Leverence still frets over industry members unable to get a seat for TV's annual celebration of its best. Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale," HBO's "Game of Thrones" and FX's "Atlanta" are among the contenders for Monday's awards (at 8 p.m. EDT, NBC) and illustrate why this has been dubbed TV's second golden age.

But Leverence has long observed the impact of the honors, with newly crowned winners arriving backstage clutching their trophy and appearing dazed and lost.

"I think it's because when you're holding that Emmy, you realize that all of a sudden something extraordinary has happened to you and it's symbolized by a beautiful trophy," Leverence said.

He's received his own: the Syd Cassyd Founder's Award, named for the academy's founder and recognizing service to the organization. It's a highlight of his academy career, said Leverence, a former professor at California State University Long Beach.

It was Leverence who helped bring cable (followed by digital) into the Emmy fold once solely for over-the-air broadcasting. In 1988, an adroit solution applied TV markets and ratings to new platforms to make their programs eligible for awards consideration.

"If we hadn't figured that out, then there'd be no HBO, no Showtime, no Netflix" competing, he said. "We'd be giving these awards out Sunday afternoon in the basement of the Elks Club in Muscatine, Iowa."

("I bet everybody in Muscatine is going to call me," added Leverence, who has family connections there.)

The genial, professorial Leverence admits to witnessing some lesser moments, one involving the elegant gold Emmy statuette of a figure with wings — really sharp-edged wings — triumphantly extended skyward.

"One guy was so excited, he was gesturing to his friend and ran the wings into his leg," Leverence recalled of the backstage moment. The wounded winner returned to his seat, noticeably bloodied but intent on staying.

There was another encounter that took place when recipients were given prop trophies until one could be engraved and sent to them. (Current recipients keep the trophy and get an engraved plate added.)

A winner refused to surrender his, pushing back with a heartfelt performance worthy of its own special-category award.

"'No, no! My mother is in the hospital. I know she's going to die tonight and I have to get to the hospital with my Emmy to show her before she dies,'" Leverence said, recounting his dramatic speech.

"Of course he was lying," he said, drolly. "But what can you do with that kind of story?"

One red-faced moment for Leverence came in 1985, when he unwittingly OK'd a ticket for a man who turned out to be an awards gatecrasher. He popped up onstage to accept the Emmy for Betty Thomas of "Hill Street Blues" — and thanked sportscaster Dick Schaap— before the actress could claim it.

"The only good thing about the whole evening was that as I went to apologize to my boss, the cops were trundling this guy through the lobby," he said.

Then there are the recurrent dreams in which Leverence is prowling the theater for empty seats to satisfy the ever-growing ticket demand (free to nominees, $700 to $800 for others in the industry).

"Why don't you sleep on the couch for a few nights," his wife has scolded him. "I can't stand you walking up and down those aisles all night."


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