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Correction appended, Sept. 17. 2015.
The last 15 years or so—at least since the world met Tony Soprano in 1999—are often described as a new Golden Age of Television. There are more shows than ever before, and movie actors who once graduated from TV to the big screen are flocking back to the small one for coveted roles. With the 2015 Primetime Emmy Awards coming up on Sunday night, LIFE.com looks back at the stars of the original Golden Age of Television—which began around the time the first Emmys were awarded, in the late 1940s—and the decades that followed.
From the 1950s era of Red Skelton and Lucille Ball to the ubiquity of Carroll O’Connor (All in the Family) and Peter Falk (Colombo) in the 1970s, Emmy’s leading men and women benefited from the stunning portraiture of LIFE’s photographers, who documented television history as it unfolded.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the TV show for which Carroll O’Connor won four Emmys. O’Connor starred in All in the Family.