Emotions ran high backstage at this year's Emmy Awards. All someone had to ask of Law & Order: SVU's Mariska Hargitay was what she was thinking as she walked to the podium to pick up her first Emmy, and the new mother instantly welled up. ''That my dad was going to be really happy'' is all Hargitay, who won the award for best actress in a drama, could get out at first. She later went on to explain that it was her father who kept her acting when she wanted to hang it up: ''He said, 'We don't have quitters in this family.' '' (Hargitay's mother, actress Jayne Mansfield, died in a car accident when she was three.)
It took more prodding to get Jeremy Piven choked up a reporter actually asked what he thought his late father would have said to him if he had been alive to see Jeremy win his Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy. ''Well, he is here [in spirit],'' Piven said softly, ''and he's proud.'' The Entourage star went on to extol the virtues of loving parents, despite what Conan O'Brien may have said in his monologue: ''I'm living proof that you can have the support of great parents and still be dysfunctional and an actor.'' True to neurotic form, Piven reminded the press that he had merely one written scene in the Entourage pilot. ''I'm billed fifth behind a guy named Turtle, remember.'' (The actor also had the best quip about the tax on the lavish award-show goodie bags: ''I think they should send the goodie bags to New Orleans.'')
Indeed, the press was relentless with questions designed to pull at the heartstrings of the winners. Hey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, were you emotional at the podium when you won best actress in a comedy for The New Adventures of Old Christine because you're so relieved the so-called Seinfeld curse had been lifted? ''No, I was emotional just because it's just a I'm overwhelmed by, uh, uh I can't even speak, I can't even answer the question. I think I was emotional about the show's success, which I'm floored by. I really am. It's a joke; I can't believe it.'' What was it like, Kiefer Sutherland, to win your first Emmy (best actor in a drama for 24) with your father sitting nearby to witness the event? ''You're talking about one of the most prolific actors in film and television, period. But tonight, this was between a father and his son, and a father who was happy for his son.'' Barry Manilow, you just finished singing a tribute to the longtime American Bandstand host Dick Clark; how do you really think his health is faring since his stroke? ''I think he's doing as great as can be expected. He's a communicator, and it stopped him from communicating. We talk on the phone, and I can still understand him.''
Best supporting actress in a comedy winner Blythe Danner got the double whammy, with questions about being a grandmother to daughter Gwyneth Paltrow's two children and the requisite ''What would your late husband say if he were here today?'' The Huff costar breezed through both inquiries with blithe aplomb. Naturally.
Things weren't all Sturm und Drang, thank goodness. The cast and producers of the best comedy winner, The Office, greeted each new reporter's question with a group wave and a cheery ''hello!'' When asked about their infectious merriment, star Steve Carell gamely answered, with a perfect deadpan, ''We're pretty deadly serious the entire time. You can tell. There's a lot of friction, personally, just between the cast and the crew and the writers. There's been a lot of animosity, and I think that's what makes the show so good. It percolates, and all of that ire really congeals and makes it into the show it is.'' (Creator Greg Daniels even attempted to take out Carell with his razor-sharp Emmy statue as his star was answering. We know it was razor sharp because Daniels then told us he'd cut his finger on the point of the statue's wings. Ouch!)
Even the crew from the deadly serious best drama winner, 24, managed to cut loose. Asked if their segment in Conan O'Brien's brilliant opening spoof was the first time they'd dared to poke fun at themselves, Kiefer Sutherland, holding statues for both acting in and producing the real-time series, intoned ''first time in public.'' Costar Mary Lynn Rajskub (the indispensable Chloe) then hopped up to the mike and provided her own spot-on deadpan: ''There's no humor at all. We cry a lot. We try not to look at each other. We're always reading really thick books of research about our characters. We're trying to pronounce hard words. We wear the same clothes, and we do a lot of fake typing.''
Some other surprises from backstage: 24 creator Joel Surnow revealed that the next season of the series will take place ''two years, maybe a little less, from the last season'' and that the feature-film version of the show will probably be set in Afghanistan, London, and Washington, D.C. Tony Shalhoub, winning his third best actor in a comedy Emmy as the obsessive-compulsive detective in Monk, said, ''I'm much more of a worrier in my life than my character, if you can believe that.'' Megan Mullally, meanwhile, has it in for Bob Newhart. ''Oh, he's going to die,'' she deadpanned (yep, it was a theme) when asked during the show to predict the outcome of the running gag with Newhart, ''and it'll be worth it because it's such a great Emmy telecast. I mean, he's a lovely man and a brilliant comedian, but it's time.'' (She did appear to be kidding.) Mullally, who received her second Emmy for her supporting role in Will & Grace, also revealed that when she was in her early 20s, she went to a psychic who told her she would ''win two Emmys as bookends for playing a secretary.'' (She did not appear to be kidding.)
Finally, after all the controversy over Ellen Burstyn's nomination as best supporting actress in a TV movie for her 14-second performance in Mrs. Harris, the winner of the category, Kelly Macdonald (The Girl in the Café), said she hadn't even heard about it. ''I was just hoping one of the other four would win,'' she said. ''Joan Collins was sitting behind me!'' Speaking of, Collins made it backstage after her breathless tribute to Dynasty creator Aaron Spelling. Her first words? ''Do you all want to hear about the play I'm rehearsing with [Dynasty arch-nemesis] Linda Evans?'' Of course we do, Joan; of course we do.