Taking on the Role of Oscar's Crystal Ball

Times Staff Writer

Screen Actors Guild President Melissa Gilbert ran into an old beau, Rob Lowe, backstage at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last year. The two hadn't seen each other in about a decade. But instead of talking about old times, Lowe told Gilbert about his delight with the ceremony. "The first thing out of his mouth was: 'This is the awards ceremony. It's really grown into the one to go to. It's not boring!' " Gilbert recalls.

The SAG awards, which will be broadcast Sunday night on cable's TNT, has proved to be one of the major forecasters of the Academy Awards. Since the SAG awards first began in 1995, all but two of the best actor winners have gone on to win the Oscar in that category and five SAG best actress winners have also picked up the Oscar for their performances.

"It used to be the Golden Globes were the primary predictor," says Gilbert. "I like to think that the SAG members have a real appreciation and understanding of what an actor goes through when he or she is preparing for a role. I think that's often what makes the SAG awards so special. It's an award given to an individual by people who really understand and appreciate what that individual has done. They vote for the performance more than the sentiment or popularity contest aspect of it, which can be sort of evident in other awards shows."

This year, "Chicago" leads the SAG nominations with five, including best actress for Renee Zellweger, best actor for Richard Gere (who didn't get an Oscar nomination) and best ensemble. "The Hours" and "Adaptation" are also multiple nominees. On the television side, "The Sopranos," "The West Wing" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" are among the multiple nominees.

It's also one of the shortest, clocking in at two hours. There are no hosts quipping wise to the audience ad nauseam or clumsy song-and-dance numbers. And the speeches are relatively painless.

"I think actors have that innate sense of timing," says Gilbert. "They are going to lose an audience if they drone on for too long with speeches."

The SAG awards didn't get much attention its first three years on NBC. The ceremony was televised on Saturday nights, a TV ratings' black hole. But when the awards moved to TNT and Sunday, the SAG awards' stock took off. Last year, 8.9 million people watched the ceremony.

"We looked at the Screen Actors Guild Awards when we got it as one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood," says Steve Koonin, executive vice president and general manager of TNT. "We look at it as a jewel in our crown. This is a celebration of actors, which is the essence of why people go to the movies or tune in to television. This is a pure celebration, and no other awards show celebrates it on such a pure basis."

Executive producer Jeff Margolis came on board in the fifth year of the SAG awards and immediately made changes in its look and tone. "Because it was the fifth year, I had an anniversary to celebrate," says Margolis. "It gave me the opportunity to grow the show and take it up to the next level -- to the next notch. We designed a new set and we totally changed the music and the graphics. One of the things that I really wanted to do was to make this more of a special evening for the actors than a television show."

"For me, it's like some odd high school reunion," says Gilbert, who grew up in front of viewers in the 1970s and '80s as a star of NBC's "Little House on the Prairie."

She's no doubt relieved not to have to repeat last year's show, which she presided over while enmeshed in a nasty election battle within the guild.

"Everybody knows why they are there," says Margolis. "There are only 13 awards in our show, and they are all acting awards. We have a lifetime achievement award and a couple of film tributes that all have to do with acting."

This year, Clint Eastwood is receiving the guild's lifetime achievement award. The former mayor of Carmel, Calif., chose Ray Romano of "Everybody Loves Raymond" to give him the award.

And just why does Eastwood also love Raymond? "He and Clint play golf together," Margolis explains.


"The 9th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards" can be seen Sunday at 8 p.m. on TNT.

Cover photograph by WireImage.

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