Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Most Expensive Acting Roles In TV History

The salaries of some television actors are absolutely staggering, especially when you consider how many episodes series on broadcast television typically include in one season. In 1996, the cast of "Friends" made television history when they collectively bargained for a raise, demanding equal pay for each cast member. In 2002, "Friends" made history again when each cast member negotiated a $1 million dollar per episode salary for the last two seasons of their hit series.

The bargaining power of this cast set a precedent for how much a network television cast could make and showed the power of collective bargaining. "I thought it was the most important thing — as we all did — that we all were equal in every single way," Courtney Cox told Howard Stern in 2021. "That was the first time that people had all stuck together in a cast. I think it was scary, probably, for productions after that."

The central cast of "The Big Bang Theory," Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, and Jim Parsons reportedly made $1 million per episode, but later made television history for actually taking a pay cut to $900,000 an episode, matching the salaries of Kunal Nayyar and Simon Helberg so the newer cast additions, Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch, could get a raise. In the years following the "Friends" era, we saw quite a few television actors secure huge paychecks for their hit series. Join us as we review the most expensive acting roles in TV history.

Jerry Seinfeld made $1 million per episode

Jerry Seinfeld made history in 1997, when he was the first television actor to negotiate $1 million per episode (per The New York Times) for playing a fictionalized version of himself in his self-titled sitcom, "Seinfeld." This is probably where the cast of "Friends" came up with their number, but Seinfeld negotiated individually and his supporting cast, while still making a pretty penny, didn't break the $1 million dollar mark per episode.

Warren Littlefield, the former President of Entertainment at NBC, told Fox News that when Seinfeld was ready to end the show, "We offered him $5 million an episode. We didn't mess around. What we put on the table was unheard of. We went in there with a staggering sum and there was tremendous confidence that no one could walk away from it." Seinfeld turned down over $100 million to do another season of "Seinfeld." If the comic had taken the offer, it would have been and still would be, the highest-paid role in television history.

In 2018, The New York Times asked Seinfeld if he ever regrets turning down the most lucrative deal in television history. He responded, "No. It was the perfect moment, and the proof that it was the right moment is the number of questions you're still asking me about it." Despite walking away from the series, Seinfeld still makes money hand over fist in streaming and syndication, making Seinfeld one of the most expensive roles in TV history.

Paul and Jamie Buchman became million-dollar roles

After losing "Seinfeld," NBC was stuck between a rock and a hard place when assessing their fall line-up for the next season. Seinfeld's $1 million dollar deal emboldened Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser, who negotiated a cool million each per episode (per The New York Times) for one more season of "Mad About You." Hunt and Reiser cashed in and transformed their solid, but never spectacular, TV following and Hunt's burgeoning film career into a lucrative deal for their last season as the Buchmans.

"There's a virus infecting the industry," Dick Wolf told Entertainment Weekly, in the aftermath of their salary coup, adding, "Forty-four million for the actors on a 15-share show? It's a dangerous era in terms of salaries." But executives at NBC argued Hunt and Reiser had earned a high-paying swan song. "We've asked this show to do a job for us on almost every night of the week," an NBC senior executive said. "It's helped on Saturday, Sunday, Thursday, and Tuesday," night line-ups.

These $1 million per episode deals showed the lengths networks would go to keep their popular shows going for just one more season once they proved their earning power. While there are many roles that earned over $1 million per episode, this price became a benchmark for keeping stars who made their mark on the small screen, rather than losing them to the huge paydays of the big screen.

The million-dollar club

Many film stars have joined the million-dollar club, landing $1 million dollar an episode deals for prestige TV projects. Nicole Kidman reportedly made $1 million an episode (per Variety) to play the mysterious Masha in Hulu's adaptation of "Nine Perfect Strangers." Kidman also took home $1 million per episode for Season 2 of the HBO adaptation of "Big Little Lies" (per Forbes) for executive producing and playing Celeste Wright.

"We're seeing more million-dollar paydays, partly, because it's a nice round number, and also these days episodes are normally about eight to 10 for a series, which allows big stars, A-list stars, who don't wanna be bogged down with doing an entire 22-episode season of television to actually come and do some television," Michael Schneider told Entertainment Tonight in 2022.

Per Variety, other big names that have received "handsome paychecks" include Sylvester Stallone for "Tulsa King," Jason Sudeikis for "Ted Lasso," both Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell for "The Shrink Next Door," Helen Mirren and Harrison Ford for "1923," and Michael Keaton for "Dopesick." Steve Carell also joined the million-dollar club for his role in Netflix's "Space Force." James Gandolfini set this standard for prestige TV when he secured $1 million an episode to play Tony Soprano for HBO.

Mia Warren was a $1.1 million per episode role

Kerry Washington cemented her stardom in the ABC series "Scandal," where she made $250,000 per episode playing Olivia Pope (per Pure Wow). It was Washington's turn as Mia Warren, a single mother and visual artist with a mysterious past, in the Hulu adaptation of the bestselling novel, "Little Fires Everywhere," that earned the actress $1.1 million dollars per episode (per Business Insider). Washington was also an executive producer on the series with her co-star, Reese Witherspoon.

Washington is the only woman of color to make it onto this list for playing one of the most expensive acting roles in TV history. This fact only highlights the reality there is still work to be done for pay parity, not only between men and women but for people of color in television. In 2021, Angela Bassett became the highest-paid woman of color on network broadcast television, showing there is also a discrepancy between salaries for prestige TV and broadcast television for women.

"Given the fact that Hollywood is a white, male-dominated industry, it's not surprising that you would find women of color underpaid relative to pretty much every other group," Dr. Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology and African-American studies at UCLA told Forbes. Part of this discrepancy between salaries in television roles is because women of color are being cast in lead roles less often than other groups, compounding the pay gap between races, and affecting representation.

Kirby Mazrachi is a $1.1 million per episode role

Elisabeth Moss became a familiar face for her roles in "The West Wing" and "Mad Men," but her role as June Osborne in "The Handmaid's Tale" made her a household name and an Emmy winner. Playing June, the handmaid intent upon destroying the patriarchal and Christo-fascist Republic of Gilead, also led to Moss directing, and becoming an executive producer on Hulu's dystopian series. For her involvement in the series, Moss is now making $1 million an episode for the series (per Parade).

For her Apple TV+ series, "Shining Girls," Moss is taking home $1.1 million an episode for playing Kirby Mazrachi, a newspaper archivist and assault survivor with ambitions of becoming an investigative journalist despite the detrimental effects the trauma she experienced had on her life and career. Moss was also an executive producer on the series and directed episodes of the mind-bending thriller.

Although the first season of the series ends similarly to the novel it was based upon, Moss would be interested in doing another season. "I feel like there's more story to tell," Moss told TheWrap in 2022, adding, "I think that sometimes with the first season, you've just given everybody a lay of the land. And then in the second season, you get to actually get down to business and have some fun. So I would be interested in 'where do we go now' and not having to explain the world, but getting to go deeper into it."

Tim Taylor was a $1.25 million per episode role

In 1997, when Tim Allen negotiated $1.25 million per episode to play Tim "the tool man" Taylor in "Home Improvement" for the eighth and final season of the series, he became the highest-paid actor on television (per Variety). At the time Allen secured this contract, "Home Improvement" was ABC's highest-rated series, and keeping the actor, who was also a producer on the hit series, for another season was of paramount importance to ABC.

In the documentary, "Home Improvement – A Half Hour of Power," it was revealed that ABC wanted a ninth season of "Home Improvement," but both Allen and his television wife, Patricia Richardson, were ready to call it quits and move on professionally. The network offered Allen $50 million to do another season, while they offered Richardson $25 million, but both stars declined the generous offers. "I couldn't have gone on, 'cause it would have been for the wrong reasons," Allen explained.

Although Allen continued acting after his hit series, his salary has never soared as high as what he made during the last season of "Home Improvement," and he reportedly made approximately $235,000 an episode for "Last Man Standing." It's safe to assume Allen is still making money from the syndication of "Home Improvement" and residuals from his turn as Buzz Lightyear in the "Toy Story" films. His historically expensive role as Tim Taylor has Allen set up for life.

Mahershala Ali is getting $1.3 million an episode to play Jake

Mahershala Ali certainly gained audiences' attention for his incredible Oscar-winning performances in "Moonlight" and "Green Book," and he has also proven himself to be a star who is interested in prestige television when he played Wayne Hays in HBO's lauded serial series, "True Detective." Ali's upcoming project, "The Plot," is another limited series currently in production in Atlanta and New York which he also serves as executive producer for.

In this Hulu limited series, Ali will play Jake, a struggling author, and professor who steals a book idea from a student and writes a bestselling novel with the stolen premise. Once someone discovers his secret, the series will follow Jake as he tries to protect the life he has built for himself as a bestselling author. According to Variety, Ali is taking home $1.3 million per episode for his lead role in the Onyx Collective's limited series.

At eight episodes, Ali will bring home over $10 million for this prestige TV project. Being cast as the new Blade for the MCU reboot certainly raised Ali's earning power, and he's cashing in on being an Oscar winner with blockbuster appeal. Being an executive producer on this Hulu limited series was also a factor in determining his staggering per-episode salary, which made Jake one of the most expensive acting roles in TV history.

John Dutton is a $1.3 million per episode role

Taylor Sheridan's neo-western series, "Yellowstone," on the Paramount Network is one of the most popular series on television, and Sheridan's western universe is ever expanding, with new series being added to the network regularly. Paramount has been casting lead roles in these series with big-name actors, and when you lure Oscar winners to prestige TV, the paycheck required is big. Kevin Costner is reportedly getting paid $1.3 million an episode to play John Dutton, the patriarch of the Dutton ranching family.

According to Outsider, the other principal cast members on "Yellowstone" are raking in $200,000 an episode, proving Costner is the big fish on the Western series. Although there have been some rumors about Costner leaving the hit series after Season 5, both Paramount Network and Costner's lawyer have insisted there is no truth to the rumors and the second installment of Season 5 will hit screens later in the year.

Of course, this Paramount series only has 14 episodes in Season 5, meaning Costner will make approximately $18.2 million dollars for the fifth season of the series. This is nothing compared to the money the cast of "Friends" and "Seinfeld" made on broadcast television with 22-24 episodes per season, but $1.3 million an episode qualifies John Dutton as one of the most expensive acting roles in TV history.

James Reece was a $1.4 million per episode role

Chris Pratt started his successful acting career on television, but made the jump to film with successful franchises like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Jurassic Park," showing Pratt is as comfortable with action as he is with comedy. Amazon lured him back to the small screen for their adaptation of Jack Carr's novel, "The Terminal List." The series is an action thriller about a Navy Seal, James Reece, who returns from a failed mission with conflicting memories, PTSD, and a desire to avenge the deaths of his unit.

Pratt reportedly earned $1.4 million an episode to play James Reece for the first season of the Amazon series (per Variety). When the series dropped on Amazon Prime, it reached #2 on the Nielsen streaming chart, beaten only by Netflix's "Stranger Things." Because of its popularity, "The Terminal List" was renewed for Season 2, and Amazon ordered a prequel series. Pratt is an executive producer on the series, and will reprise his role in both the prequel and Season 2 of "The Terminal List." The actor will cash in on the role of James Reece for a while longer. At $1.4 million a pop, this is one of the most expensive roles in TV history.

Frasier was a $1.6 million per episode role

Many audience members met Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) for the first time in the popular '80s series, "Cheers," and millions of us got to know him a lot better in his spinoff series, "Frasier." The series followed Frasier from Boston where he was a regular at the bar (where everyone knows your name), back to Seattle for a fresh start with his father, Martin (John Mahoney), and younger brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), after a messy divorce. It's a rarity when a spinoff is as successful as the original series, but "Frasier" is the exception to the rule, winning 37 Emmys.

In 2001, Grammer reportedly negotiated a huge raise, taking home $1.6 million an episode for the last two seasons of the series (per People), making him the highest-paid actor on television for a while. This stratospheric salary earned Grammer $75 million over the last two seasons of the series, making Frasier one of the most expensive acting roles in TV history for years to come, while the "Frasier" reboot should add some more coin to Dr. Crane's coffers. It's worth noting, Pierce, who won't be returning for the reboot, reportedly negotiated $1 million per episode to play Niles for the last two seasons of the series, making $44 million.

Ray Barone was a $1.75 million per episode role

In 2003, Ray Romano negotiated a deal for a cool $1.725 million per episode to continue starring in "Everybody Loves Raymond," as Ray Barone (per People). This deal made Romano the highest-paid actor on television, ousting Kelsey Grammer. Although this was a significant raise, Romano had been making $800,000 an episode for a few years, and before that, it is estimated he was making around $300,000 an episode in the early years of the CBS sitcom. From these figures, and the long seasons in broadcast television, Ray Barone is one of the most expensive acting roles in TV history, and Romano will cash in on his syndication rights for years to come.

This massive salary was outstanding for Romano, but his supporting cast wasn't happy about the huge discrepancy between their pay and his. In 2003, Brad Garrett, who played Ray's brother Robert, staged a walkout to protest their meager salaries. "Ray deserves every penny," Garrett's representatives told The Washington Post, adding, "Brad earns less than 10 percent of Ray's salary and is the lowest paid member of a grossly underpaid supporting cast. All Brad wants is compensation commensurate with what other similarly situated actors have made in the past and are making today." Romano reportedly didn't blame the cast and told the Daily News (via People) he would have done the same thing if he were in their position.

Charlie Harper was a $1.8 million per episode role

During his last season on the hit series, "Two and A Half Men," Charlie Sheen negotiated an absurd $100 million deal to continue starring in the series (per The Hollywood Reporter), and Sheen was paid a staggering $1.8 million per episode to play Charlie Harper. When Sheen negotiated this deal, it made him the highest-paid actor on television for a brief period, but Sheen's battle with show creator Chuck Lorre soon overshadowed this historic TV salary. The actor's very public mental health meltdown and subsequent firing from the hit series came swiftly, and they replaced Sheen on the show with a new character played by Ashton Kutcher.

A decade after Sheen's dismissal from the show, the actor expressed his regret over his behavior. "There was 55 different ways for me to handle that situation, and I chose number 56. And so, you know, I think the growth for me post-meltdown or melt forward or melt somewhere — however you want to label it — it has to start with absolute ownership of my role in all of it," Sheen told Yahoo!. "And it was desperately juvenile." Of course, Sheen didn't burn all his bridges in Hollywood, because he went on to star in "Anger Management" on FX just one year later.

Jennifer Aniston is still one of the highest-paid actresses on television

Not only did Jennifer Aniston make $1 million per episode playing Rachel Green in "Friends," decades later, she still has massive earning power. After years as a film actress, Aniston returned to television, co-starring with Reese Witherspoon in Apple TV's "The Morning Show." Aniston reportedly took home $1.25 million an episode to play Alex Levy in Season 1 of the series (per Observer).

Aniston, who is also an executive producer on the series, reportedly took home an estimated $2 million per episode to play the famous news anchor in the second season of the series in 2021 (per Glamour). Although each season of "The Morning Show" is only 10 episodes long, Aniston will take home $20 million for Season 3, making Alex Levy one of the most expensive acting roles in TV history.

"It's a way for women to work on the gender pay gap — producing and coming up with their own projects," one talent agent, who represents some of the world's top female talent, told Forbes. "They work together to raise everybody up together. And when you can point to the fact that a show would not exist without your client's work, you are in a place where you can demand more."

Reese Witherspoon is raking in millions

Reese Witherspoon has become an entertainment mogul with her production company Hello Sunshine, and one of the richest women in Hollywood. Although Witherspoon started out in the film industry, she has branched out into prestige television as an executive producer in recent years. She's still bringing home the bacon with her acting skills, though, as she reportedly made $1.1 million per episode playing Elena Richardson in the Hulu adaptation of "Little Fires Everywhere" (per Cosmopolitan).

Witherspoon also took home $1 million per episode for Season 2 of HBO's runaway hit, "Big Little Lies" (via Forbes), in which she plays sassy Madeline Martha Mackenzie and was an executive producer with her co-star, Nicole Kidman. The payday for Season 2 of the series certainly makes this role one of prestige TV's most expensive.

In addition, Witherspoon made an estimated $2 million per episode playing Bradley Jackson in Season 2 of "The Morning Show," and took home $1.25 million an episode for Season 1 of the Apple TV series about two journalists working on a morning news show when a male co-host is accused of sexual harassment. With these three high-paying roles, Witherspoon is making TV history and her own calls in Hollywood.

Jack Ryan is a $2 million per episode role

John Krasinski may have won our hearts playing Jim in "The Office" but he cashed in on his fame by landing one of the most expensive acting roles in TV history. Krasinski is reportedly taking home $2 million per episode (per Puck) between his acting salary and executive producing fees for Season 3 of the Amazon series, "Jack Ryan."

It's important to keep in mind these huge $2 million per episode salaries we are seeing for A-list stars in episodic television series on streaming platforms often include an executive producer fee, as we saw with both Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. These massive salaries are also specific to streaming services that pay everything up front, with no backend syndication and royalty payments.

"Back end doesn't mean anything anymore in television, unless you're Dick Wolf or some mega-producer who is doing network procedurals," one talent agent told Variety, "Anything you get in terms of back-end compensation at this point is just gravy." Even without a backend deal, Krasinski pulled down an estimated $16 million for his third season playing Jack Ryan, proving television can still provide huge salaries for big stars.