Big name stars are a precious commodity for TV networks. Unlike movies, which require fans to travel to a theater to watch a film, televisions are found in almost every household. By just tuning in, viewers effect ratings, which then decide advertising rates. The bigger the star and show on a given network, the more money the network can earn from eager advertisers.
TV stars know this well and have been able to get some ridiculous salaries, making them some of the highest-paid entertainers on earth. For example, Oprah Winfrey, who is now the 211th richest person on earth, was paid $315 million for her final season of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010. However, this list features TV actors only, so reality TV stars and talk show hosts like Winfrey, Dr. Phil, and Simon Cowell, all who make tens of millions of dollars per year for their shows, are not included.
By calculating a per episode salary, we hope to demonstrate the value that producers and networks have placed on these actors/actresses and how valuable their presence is to advertisers. In cases where salaries are equal, we looked at inflation values to determine which year the money was worth more.
This is Screen Rant's 10 Highest Paid TV Actors of all Time:
10 Ashton Kutcher - Two and a Half Men
It almost feels sad that, while the show was successful for eight seasons before he joined the cast, Ashton Kutcher was awarded a salary that outpaced co-star Jon Cryer by $100,000 per episode when he joined Two and a Half Men. This may be because even at over $750k, he still cost much less than former star Charlie Sheen.
Beginning his career as the lovable doofus Michael Kelso in That '70s Show, Kutcher had spent a few years working in film and as a Twitter celebrity before returning to television in 2011, after the well-publicized departure of Sheen opened up a spot on the cast of Two and a Half Men. Playing Walden Schmidt, a billionaire who buys Charlie's (Charlie Sheen) house, Kutcher somewhat mirrored his on-screen character as a savior to the Harper family, keeping both the show and the on-screen family afloat for another four years after the departure of the "total freakin' rock star from Mars" Sheen.
9 Michael C. Hall - Dexter
8 Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco - The Big Bang Theory
Salary: $1 Million Each
It's difficult to compare the state of television today to the heyday of network TV in the 1990s and early 2000s. Because of TV on demand, streaming services, the massive expansion of cable networks, and online piracy, there is no longer a need to tune to a station at a given time each week to see a favorite show. One man who has broken this rule is The Big Bang Theory creator and producer Chuck Lorre. By offering shows aimed at audiences who are less tech savvy (read: older) he guarantees fans will stay tuned to CBS each week.
Leading actors Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter), Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper), and Kaley Cuoco (Penny Hofstadter) have taken a concept about a group of socially inept geniuses and their attractive, less intelligent neighbor and turned it into the top comedy program on television today. With average ratings of over 19.5 million viewers per episode for seasons 6, 7, and 8, the leading cast were able to use that success to negotiate a three-year deal worth $1 million dollars per episode, a number not seen on TV for a decade.
An honorable mention to potential future list entrants are Big Bang co-stars Simon Helberg (Howard Wolowitz) & Kunal Nayyar (Raj Koothrappali) who were almost released from the show when they tried to negotiate separately from the main cast. Demanding huge salaries from CBS, they were threatened with firing or replacement. In the end, they held out and received a deal that linked their pay to what Galecki, Parsons and Cuoco earn, rumored to be 50 to 80%, meaning that if the show lasts past the 10th season, they'll likely break the top 10 as well.
7 Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow - Friends
Salary: $1M Each
When Friends debuted in 1994, the cast earned just over $20,000 per episode. By the time the series ended in 2004, they had received a 5000% raise, with each actor bringing in $1 million every Must See TV episode of the show. It's rumored that Lisa Kudrow, the actress who played the hippy Phoebe Buffay, convinced the rest of the friends to enter into negotiations together to demand the largest possible salary.
With ratings that led to it landing in the top ten shows every season it was on TV, it's understandable why Ross (David Schwimmer), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Monica (Courteney Cox), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), and Pheobe were so well paid. Not as peer-recognized as Frasier, or critically acclaimed as Seinfeld, Friends was a show beloved by its fans, having an equally huge effect on both popular culture ("The Rachel" haircut, Joey's catchphrase: "How you doin'?") and the way that TV stars are compensated to this day.
6 Paul Reiser & Helen Hunt - Mad About You
Salary: $1M Each
Another NBC sitcom set in New York in the 1990s, Mad About You's high salaries were the happy coincidence of a number of intersecting events, as opposed to demand for more of the show. Paired with other Must See TV gold of the era, Mad About You's best season saw 5 million fewer viewers on average than even the worst seasons of Seinfeld or Friends.
With Seinfeld having finished its run in 1998, NBC needed to fill a massive hole in its lineup. With Helen Hunt's recent successes in Twister and As Good As It Gets, she was a huge token the network already held. Thinking her star power could bring more viewers to the series, and preferring to bet on a known commodity as opposed to a new series, the network paid her $1M per episode. As part of their contracts, Reiser had a matching salary clause, which meant he earned just as big of a paycheck without the requisite fame.
5 Jerry Seinfeld - Seinfeld
Salary: $1M +
Jerry Seinfeld was paid extremely well to portray a version of himself on NBC series Seinfeld. The last season came with $1 million pay for every episode they made. This is understandable, considering that 1 in ten Americans were tuning in each week to watch the show.
However, Seinfeld wasn't only an actor on the show, and as one of the show's creators and executive producers, he earns part of the syndication fees paid by networks in order to have the right to air reruns of the show. If 2004 is any indication of how much these fees can amount to, it is estimated that he received $267 million in these payments, an average of $1.5 million per episode of the show. This isn't included in his ranking, but we feel it's a fair tiebreaker.
If Seinfeld had agreed to another season of the show, he would likely be the highest paid TV actor for at least the foreseeable future. When he stated that he wanted to end the show, NBC knew they were losing a goldmine, and as a last ditch effort to keep it on the air they offered him $5 million per episode for a 10th season.
4 Tim Allen - Home Improvement
With NBC holding a stranglehold on comedy for much of the 90s, ABC had a shining star with Tim Allen and Home Improvement. One of the rare shows to do it, in 1993/1994 Home Improvement edged out Seinfeld as the second highest rated show on television, second only to 60 Minutes.
While Home Improvement was on still in production, Allen also had a huge hit at the box office from starring in The Santa Clause, as well as successful roles in Toy Story, and Jungle 2 Jungle. Having a young cast (less salary) on a show with ratings that stood respectively next to Friends and Seinfeld, Allen was in a prime position to demand a large salary to play Tim Taylor for the final season of the show, for which he was paid a total of $35 million for 28 episodes.
3 Kelsey Grammer - Frasier
Star of Frasier, the last big series on NBC's Must See TV line-up, Kelsey Grammer entered this show with an established network relationship and existing salary, thanks to Frasier's precursor on NBC, the sitcom Cheers. Having already built a fan following over 9 seasons on Cheers, Grammer got off to a good start and was earning $250,00 per episode by the time Frasier entered it's 3rd season.
Focused on the sherry sipping, opera-loving, post-bar life of Boston psychologist-turned-Seattle radio personality Dr. Frasier Crane, Frasier is widely regarded as the most successful spinoff on TV. Along with decent ratings, Grammer also picked up 4 of the show's 37 total Emmy awards, something that didn't hurt him at negotiation time.
While the supporting cast made considerably less than Grammer, David Hyde Pierce (Frasier's younger brother, Dr. Niles Crane) earned $750,00 per episode in the series' final season, $500 short of cracking the top 10. Not bad for a guy who was selling ties at Bloomingdales before he was cast in the role.
2 Ray Romano - Everybody Loves Raymond
A somewhat unknown standup before getting his CBS show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray Romano was offered a TV deal shortly after performing on Late Night with David Letterman. The series, like his comedy, was based on his family and personal experience. It featured sports writer Ray Barone and family, who lived directly across the street from his overbearing mother.
Over the course of 9 seasons, the show gained popularity and became a fixture on the otherwise flagging CBS. Popular with advertisers at the time, CBS was able to charge $1.22 million per commercial during the series finale, one of the highest rates ever.
After entering syndication, it's clear that the investment in Romano paid off. The 5-year rights to air reruns of the show sold to TBS for $650,000 per episode in 2005. While Ray may have made $50 million for the last two seasons of the series, CBS recouped $136 million for one syndication cycle. In 2015, the show entered its 3rd cycle, meaning that the network has probably received similar paydays in 2010 and again 2015.
Little known fact: Ray Romano was fired from NBC series News Radio and replaced by Joe Rogan before principal photography began.
1 Charlie Sheen - Two and a Half Men/Anger Management
The "Warlock" himself, Charlie Sheen broke the all-time record for TV salaries when he finished his 100th episode of FX series Anger Management. In a deal that was contingent on his good behaviour, Sheen was paid a $200 million dollar salary as soon as the show passed the 100 episode mark. With the series survival contractually non-contingent on ratings, Sheen towed the line and played therapist Charlie Goodson for 100 episodes. At that point, he collected his check for 2 million dollars per episode and the show was canceled.
Even more amazing is that the record he broke was his own. In the final season that Sheen worked on Two and A Half Men, he was paid 1.8 million per episode. After a hugely public fight with series producer Chuck Lorre, Sheen went off the rails, demanded a further raise, and declared that he had "Adonis DNA." During this period, he was dismissed from the series, and he was replaced by Ashton Kutcher.
No matter what way you look at it, with a record that is fairly unapproachable by any current TV stars, Charlie Sheen was right when he declared that he was "Winning!"
Did these stars deserve their salaries? Or would that money have been better off going elsewhere? Sound off in the comments below!