Go ahead, lean on him. As Courage Under Fire’s Gulf War tank corps leader, Washington gave his strong shoulders to any mortal burden – the friendly-fire death of a friend, nagging questions about a woman combat hero. Transcending race, remorse, and anything less than the truth, he wasn’t made of stone but of some finer stuff. And when, as an angel in The Preacher’s Wife, he felt Whitney Houston’s pain, he took her dancing.


Once you discover Thomas – in Four Weddings and a Funeral, perhaps? – you’re hers for life. But this year the patrician-looking Englishwoman really got to show her range. She went from spinsterish and severe in Angels & Insects to romantic and sexual in The English Patient, and in doing so revealed an ability to portray passionate abandon never hinted at while she pined for Hugh Grant in Four Weddings. Surprised by the revelation? Those who were already hers for life always felt the heat behind her cool gaze.


For a definition of ”breadth,” consider Lane’s year: in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, skirt-chaser; in The Birdcage, skirt. Even after he exercised a gal’s prerogative to pout regally in Mike Nichols’ film farce, we bought him (no slave pun intended) when he painted on a chauvinistic leer in Forum’s smashing Broadway revival. The world has its first real stage-to-screen crossover star since the salad days of Julie Andrews.


As dignified, strong-willed physician assistant Jeanie Boulet on ER, Reuben doesn’t make a lot of noise. Even when Boulet was diagnosed as HIV-positive in September, the actress expressed anger and fear delicately. Yet Reuben squeezes so much intensity into her scenes that she manages to shift the entire ER force field every time she appears in the operating room – or sits in a clinic counting her AZT pills.


At this point in his ownership of the role of NYPD Blue’s Det. Andy Sipowicz, Franz can make a point merely by hiking a beefy shoulder. Last season Sipowicz bottomed out, undone by alcohol and grief over his older son’s death. This fall the cop was on the wagon again. And Franz’s work is, if anything, even more interesting now that he has settled (as much as Andy can) into a good marriage, happy fatherhood, and a good partnership with Jimmy Smits’ true-blue Bobby Simone.


Too-liberal tears turn us off, but Blethyn’s emotionally defenseless mum in Secrets & Lies greets us so palpably shell-shocked by life that when she finally merits her first real girlfriend (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, above, right) – who just happens to be the mixed-race baby whose memory she’s spent decades trying to annul – we have a rooting interest in her terrified denial turning to joyful bawling. Sweethawwwwrt!


People who knew him as Antonio, the schlemiel cabbie on NBC’s Wings, must’ve dropped their popcorn when they saw Big Night on the big screen. Here was Primo, tender lover, searing perfectionist, a chef who’d rather fight than serve spaghetti with risotto. ”Primo is my better self, the part that doesn’t compromise,” says Shalhoub. That part of him is primo.