Prime-Time Salary Wars

ByABC News

Sept. 26, 2003 -- Last weekend's Emmy Awards saw the annual gathering of TV's prettiest faces and dazzling figures. And to judge from published reports, figures don't get more dazzling than some of the stars' salaries.

Watch Chris Connelly's full report on 20/20 this Friday at 10 p.m.

According to published reports, Jane Kaczmarek of Malcolm in the Middle draws $150,000 an episode; Debra Messing and Eric McCormack of Will & Grace each pull in $250,000 an episode; and The West Wing's Martin Sheen is paid $300,000 an episode.

The cast of Friends and Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond have been among the most notable combatants in Hollywood's favorite fall sport: the prime-time TV salary wars. The Friends cast emerged from their salary battle with deals for a reported $1.2 million an episode — each. Romano won a $1.8 million per episode deal.

Even with their signed contracts already on file, some actors will wheel, deal, and even call in sick to force a studio or network to renegotiate. It's a technique common enough to warrant its own gag at the Emmys.

"It's something you can't do without in this town — how to renegotiate while still under contract, said Brad Garret of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Greedy or Getting Their Fair Share?

Are the actors just getting their fair share, or are they being greedy?

Former NBC chief Warren Littlefield, who now oversees his new series Like Family on the WB, served on the salary wars front lines. Back in 1997, he battled it out with Seinfeld's supporting cast, then pulling in $150,000 an episode but looking to ride Jerry's coattails to a $1-million-a-show deal.

"We absolutely knew we needed that cast. We were not gonna go out and say, 'OK, here's Jerry and some new friends,' " Littlefield said.

Littlefield says the cast turned down an offer that included GE stock, before eventually settling for a still-sizable $600,000 an episode. Littlefield admits that it was difficult to accept paying such huge salaries to the sitcom cast. "Those actors have a bit of a swagger. And I'm sitting there going, 'Yeah, I guess I should be serving them breakfast.' "

But what's typically on the menu is money, big money. The Sopranos' James Gandolfini was reportedly asking for as much as $2 million an episode last year. HBO responded by threatening to shut down the most successful series in its history. Gandolfini reportedly eventually settled for more than $800,000 per show.

And this season's biggest salary war saw Garrett written out of the season's first episode of Everybody Loves Raymond while he lobbied for an increase in his reported $150,000 per show deal — one-tenth of Romano's per-show pay.

Trying to Get Tough With Friends

Garth Ancier, another former NBC executive who is now at the WB, has dealt with a lot of actors like Garrett, who reportedly settled for $250,000 an episode and a slice of the show's future profits.

Those profits can get as high as $1 billion for a show like Friends, which put Ancier in a tight spot back in 2000, when he was running NBC's entertainment side and found himself in a high-stakes re-negotiation with the Friends cast.

All six of the show's stars were asking for $1,050,000 per episode each. "We thought $700,000 was an appropriate increase," Ancier said.

But, their response to $700,000 per episode, Ancier said, was "We'd like $1,050,000."

Ancier said he needed a way to prove to the cast that NBC was serious about walking away from the biggest hit on its prime-time schedule. "So I asked the promotion department to cut promos saying 'you've loved them for seven years, see how it all ends with the series finale of Friends this Thursday at eight … People around me felt that was a little on the mean side, but I didn't see any other way to make the threat real."

The threat worked: the Friends came back to the negotiating table. Two years later, they got their $1 million-an-episode deal.

Did the Battle Begin in Dallas?

As J.R. Ewing, the grinning embodiment of oil-rich avarice on Dallas, Larry Hagman was one of the biggest stars on television in 1980. In May of that year, the "Who Shot J.R." episode became the second-most watched show in TV history. So Hagman decided it was time for a Texas-sized raise: from $15,000 an episode to $100,000. He went for it in true J.R. style. He even told his agents to wear white Stetsons.

"In essence I broke my contract. And whether that's morally good or not, I don't know," Hagman said.

But, he added jokingly, maybe Jennifer Aniston and the gang owe him a thing or two for breaking new ground. "I think all the kids on Friends should kick in 10 percent to ol' Lar' for starting a trend."

Hagman won his gamble, landing an escalating salary deal that topped out at $250,000 an episode."I don't think I'm greedy. I think I'm getting paid what I was worth," Hagman said.

Littlefield remembers one time that a renegotiating actor — Diff'rent Strokes' Gary Coleman — got a big surprise, courtesy of NBC's witty chief, the late Brandon Tartikoff.

According to Littlefield, Tartikoff had put a framed photo of actor Emmanuel Lewis just behind a couch where Coleman was sitting. When Coleman glanced over his shoulder and noticed the photo, he got the message.

But not every actor goes back to work after a failed renegotiation. In the '80s, the sitcom Valerie was renamed The Hogan Family after NBC and the show's star, Valerie Harper, couldn't come to terms.

Perhaps the most famous battle in the history of the salary wars was the wrangling between Suzanne Somers and the producers of the hit sitcom Three's Company.

She was originally hired to play the blithe and bouncy Chrissy Snow on Three's Company for just $5,000 a show. But by season five, Somers had become a national sensation — featured on dozens of magazine covers and a best-selling poster as the sex-drenched sitcom hit it big.

Somers and her representatives were hoping to capitalize on her popularity. She astonished Three's Company's producers by asking for a huge raise: from $35,000 to $150,000 an episode, or an even more lucrative percentage of the show's proceeds.

"Now anybody at home is going well, cry me a river, because it's a lot of money. But here's the deal. When you're a struggling actor or actress, you hang in there in the hopes that you'll be one of the few that scores," she said.

Thinking back to that time, she says she knew what she was doing. Somers said, "I started realizing that this is a business. I'm seeing that the men are being paid four, five, 10 times more, and they're on shows that aren't as successful as mine."

Somers' demands backfired: her character was written out of the show.

"My career was dead, because the public got mad at me for being greedy. And I was portrayed as greedy. And really what I was asking for I still think I deserved it," she said.

After years in Hollywood limbo, Somers landed Step by Step in 1991. Today, she's at the helm of a multi-million-dollar self-help mini-empire.And in 1994, Somers saw her status as the networks' favorite "bad example' supplanted by David Caruso, who bolted NYPD Blue one year into its run. He spent eight years as a victim of the salary wars before C.S.I. Miami rescued him.

Ancier recalls how effective the Caruso example was. "In my NBC office, I had two doors. … on the way out, I had a color picture of David Caruso, and I … I just would point to it if I needed to, with particular performers. I didn't have to do it often, but they got the point right away."

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