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Emmys spend night in "The West Wing'

Among the awards are a number of surprises and statues that make up for previous omissions.

Say this for the Emmys: when they finally decide to get around to surprising us, they hand out some doozies.

Early in Sunday's 52nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, it looked like NBC's White House drama The West Wing would send HBO's mob drama The Sopranos to sleep with the fishes _ with early wins for directing, writing and supporting acting categories (both shows were tied as most-nominated, with 18 nods apiece).

But The Sopranos rallied with a win for star James Gandolfini, who breezed past West Wing's Martin Sheen to take the award for best actor in a drama.

Still, in the end, The West Wing took home the big prize: best drama. And it set a record, winning nine Emmys.

"The Sopranos is one of the great achievements in television . . . congratulations, guys," noted West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, in accepting the best drama trophy. "(But) I'm the happiest guy in the world."

One of the evening's biggest wins came in the best actor, comedy category, where Spin City star Michael J. Fox drew a standing ovation for his win just months after advancing Parkinson's disease forced him to leave the show.

"To you people at home . . . thanks," Fox said. "It's been a great ride. And stay tuned."

In another surprise Sopranos upset, Once and Again's Sela Ward won as best actress, drama _ beating Lorraine Bracco and Edie Falco from HBO's mob drama. Emmy also made up for last year's omissions, handing a best actress, comedy honor to Everybody Loves Raymond's Patricia Heaton and three long overdue statues to NBC's groundbreaking gay-centered comedy, Will & Grace.

Will & Grace won Sunday as best comedy, along with honors for supporting actor and actress in comedy to Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally _ whose Jack McFarland and Karen Walker have brought serious sparks to NBC's comedy.

"As a gay man, I cannot believe I'm saying this, but I think I finally met a girl I want to sleep with," said co-creator Max Mutchnick, holding the Emmy statue. "This award (brings) a whole new meaning to the term, "acceptance speech.' "

Big-name stars made out well, with awards handed to Vanessa Redgrave as best supporting actress in a miniseries or movie for If These Walls Could Talk 2. Hollywood legend Jack Lemmon walked away with a best actor award in a miniseries or movie for the sentimental Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie.

"Thank you to Oprah, for the part of a lifetime," offered Lemmon, tearing up a little as he thanked his wife and co-star Hank Azaria (who also won as a supporting actor in a miniseries or movie; the show also won as best TV movie). "And thank you, Morrie."

The West Wing's landslide was predicted by critics _ including this one _ who expected the show's more conventional, hopeful vision to beat The Sopranos' dark, explicitly rule-breaking Mob-fueled attitude.

Still, West Wing co-star Allison Janney's win as supporting actress in a drama edged out The Sopranos' Nancy Marchand, who died this year and was favored in the category. Likewise with Richard Schiff's win as supporting actor in a drama, beating out last year's winner, The Practice's Michael Badalucco.

Even Fox-TV's sparkling midseason comedy Malcolm in the Middle, mostly shut out of the major awards categories, snagged trophies for comedy directing and writing.

Those results seemed a direct rebuke to those who criticized changes allowing Emmy voters to watch videotapes of nominees at home.

Though some fretted that voters wouldn't bother, picking the most famous and buzzed-about nominees, Sunday's nail-biting finish seemed to prove that Emmy could shine its light on hip, creatively ambitious shows.

Still, hipness has its downside. Cool as British cross-dressing comic Eddie Izzard may be, should he have beat out Chris Rock, Billy Crystal and David Letterman to win Emmys for writing and performance in a variety, music or comedy show?

With his neuroses on full display, Garry Shandling once again proved why comics make the best award show hosts _ keeping up the pace with a number of pre-planned bits and wry asides.

Okay, the Survivor parody that kicked off the show wasn't as cool as seeing Oscar host Billy Crystal inserted in The English Patient. But watching Shandling voted into the host's job by a bedraggled Craig Kilborn, Arsenio Hall, Cherie Oteri and Andy Richter wasn't bad.

Other highlights: turning on a Big Brother camera in the men's room to reveal X-Files star David Duchovny working as an attendant ("Don't ask," he said.) and suggesting a story idea for Sex and the City that managed to shock star Sarah Jessica Parker.

As usual, people of color had to earn their Emmy gold on the edges, with HBO's black-centered miniseries The Corner earning three awards (including best miniseries), though none of its actors were nominated.

Halle Berry won perhaps the most ironic award, honored as best actress in a miniseries or movie playing an overlooked African American movie star in HBO's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

"Wherever Dorothy Dandridge is, I know she is standing tall and smiling," Berry said of the late actress. "Thank you to my community _ the African American community who loves me, lifts me up when I am down and they never, ever let me go."

With TV viewership below the Tony Awards and critics constantly carping on the predictability of its winners, the Emmys have often seemed like the Rodney Dangerfield of showbiz award shows: no respect and less attention.

Still, Sunday's proceedings seemed an admirable step in turning around an awards show often hobbled by its own inability to recognize innovation and quality.

Here are the major Emmy Awards announced Sunday evening:

Best drama: The West Wing

Best comedy: Will & Grace

Best Actor, Drama: James Gandolfini, The Sopranos

Best Actress, Drama: Sela Ward, Once and Again

Best Actor, Comedy: Michael J. Fox, Spin City

Best Actress, Comedy: Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond

Best Supporting Actor, Drama: Richard Schiff, The West Wing

Best Supporting Actress, Drama: Allison Janney, The West Wing

Best Supporting Actor, Comedy: Sean Hayes, Will & Grace

Best Supporting Actress, Comedy; Megan Mullally, Will & Grace

Best Miniseries: The Corner

Best TV Movie: Oprah Winfrey Presents: Tuesdays With Morrie

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