When you mention to Donald A. Morgan that he holds a distinctive place in Emmy history by being the Black artist who has won the most Emmys in history (10 to date), he takes a notable emotional pause to take it all in. Only RuPaul Charles has the capability to eclipse that record. But Morgan will not make it easy for the “Drag Race” superstar. In the Outstanding Cinematography for a Multi-Camera Series category this year, Morgan occupies three of the five nominee spots, for his work on Fox’s “Last Man Standing,” ABC’s “The Conners” and Netflix’s “The Upshaws” (seen above). And those odds might dictate one more statue on the mantle.
“What’s really crazy is the Academy told us cinematographers that we had to up the submissions in order to keep the category,” says Morgan. “So, we went from 15 [submissions], hoping to take it to 25. But they said, ‘Okay, we’ll let you go ahead if you can bring in 23.’ So, all of the cinematographers tried to submit as many different pieces as possible and I think we got to a total of 24. And because of the timing and COVID, I was eligible for four different projects. So, I put in all four hoping to help the group, and I really didn’t expect this to happen.”
The veteran cinematographer has literally seen the evolution of the television sitcom, starting out in iconic 1970s comedies like “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” (“They shot right next door to each other”, Morgan says) moving through hits like “227,” “Mr. Belvedere,” “Home Improvement” and “Moesha,” most of which had 20-plus episode seasons, all the way up to more modern series like Netflix’s “The Ranch” (for which he won his three most recent Emmys), among a great many. And there are just as many series he’s worked on that you probably have not heard of, according to Morgan.
”I always like to do pilots because you have a chance to create the look and meet new people, and it’s just part of the networking process that is really nice,” Morgan notes. “Even back then you would do 25 episodes, but it would only really start off with 13. And then it would be nice to get that back nine. So, you’re busting your behind those first 13 episodes, and then if you get the back nine, you’re doing pretty good with the numbers. So that second season is almost automatic.”
And Morgan has had pretty good luck with second seasons and beyond (“Home Improvement” ran a whopping eight seasons, and he worked on each one), and even better luck reconnecting with actors like Tim Allen, who he worked with again on “Last Man Standing,” Marla Gibbs (on both “Jeffersons” and “227”) and most recently, Kim Fields in “The Upshaws”, decades after he worked with her on “The Facts of Life.”
“I remember Kim when she was on roller skates!” exclaims Morgan. “Also, years after ‘Home Improvement’ I ran into Tim in a Starbucks, hadn’t seen him in 10 years, and he mentioned a new project, and six months later I was working on ‘Last Man Standing’ which ran as long as ‘Home,’ which was a trip! And with Marla, she did this little play in a 50-seat theater on Crenshaw that got a lot of attention, and it became ‘227,’ which was Regina King’s first acting role. A lot of the time, it’s just by coincidence.”
The job hasn’t changed much over the years, Morgan says, except for the cost-cutting required for many modern projects but there is a little bit of a sea change taking place in the type of individuals you are seeing behind the scenes of the comedies he works on, and he’s happy to lead the charge.
Says Morgan: “I think we as cinematographers have a responsibility, and I’ve always had a mixed crew, but in the multicam environment, there’s just not as many women of color operating. So, what I’ve been trying to do on ‘The Conners’ is have our utility folks maybe do a scene per week, so they can get some of that time in. We just we know that we’ve got to give everyone time to practice. So that’s what we’re going to continue doing on ‘The Conners’ this season, it’s great.”