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The Transformation Of Kaley Cuoco From Childhood To The Big Bang Theory

When CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" premiered in 2007, Kaley Cuoco captured fans' hearts as neighbor-to-the-nerds Penny, a character she says is a lot like herself. "She's just so loud and basically like me," she told ET Online. "She's all over the place..."

But you don't get a permanent spot on a sitcom that goes on for 12 seasons — and win multiple awards for your performance — without serious acting chops. Cuoco may have appeared to be a naïve newcomer when she first showed her sweet and smiling face on "The Big Bang Theory," but like her character, she put years of work into honing her skills, defining her goals, and finally, reaching them. And it all started when she was only five years old.

"I basically grew up on stages and grew up in front of the camera, and I always kind of loved it," she told Sidewalks. "My parents said, 'Do it or don't.' It was never a big deal. ... It was like another activity that we did. ... It just kind of kept happening, and I kept working."

Acting was a fun pastime for Cuoco as a youngster, but over time, she started landing high-profile parts. Here's how she grew from a child actor into her most famous role to date.

Kaley grew up in California

Kaley's road to Hollywood wasn't a long one. She was born in November 1985 to her parents Layne and Gary, whose ancestry traces back to Italy, England, and Germany (via Entertainment Tonight). She has a younger sister, Briana Cuoco, who has her own successful career in show business as well. She made a cameo on "The Big Bang Theory" as the girlfriend of Penny's ex, and has also played roles in Kaley's other projects, like "Harley Quinn" and "The Flight Attendant." She's even done choreography work for shows like "Two and a Half Men," by the same creator as "The Big Bang Theory," Chuck Lorre. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is as a contestant on season 5 of "The Voice."

Kaley and Briana spent their childhoods growing up in Camarillo, California, which is only an hour away from Los Angeles. This made Kaley's early dreams of being a child actor easier to pursue, but her desire to act came with a deal from her parents: she had to have a back-up plan. 

This led to Kaley developing many hobbies as a child aside from acting. There was of course modeling and tennis as a child, but as an adult she has maintained very eclectic tastes outside of her usual job, including equestrianism and drumming. 

She's worked since the beginning

Kaley Cuoco had plenty of interests as a child. She played tennis from age three, and she also enjoyed modeling and acting. Some of her earliest commercials were for Barbie and Oscar Meyer, when she was about five years old.

Her television debut came in 1992, when she was cast as Connie Reinhardt in a made-for-TV movie. "Quicksand: No Escape" told the story of a man who is framed for murder. At just seven years old, she joined an amazing cast, including Donald Sutherland, Tim Matheson, and Felicity Huffman.

From there, Cuoco's career was set in motion, and she began landing roles on some of the decade's most popular shows. In 1994, she appeared in an episode of CBS' "Northern Exposure." She also had a guest spot on ABC's "My So-Called Life." Two years later, she was on ABC's "Ellen," playing a young version of Ellen DeGeneres' character.

Kaley moves to the Disney Channel

Like many child actors, Kaley's increased opportunities eventually led her to the Disney Channel. Throughout her youth, she appeared in numerous Disney productions, starting with the TV film "Toothless" starring Kirstie Alley as a dentist-turned-Tooth Fairy. In the film, Kaley played Lori, a little girl who is visited by Alley's Tooth Fairy. However, one of her more recognizable roles as a teenager came with the Disney Channel original movie "Alley Cats Strike," which was released in 2000. 

Kaley starred in the film as Elisa Bowers, a member of her school's bowling team. Not only was this a big opportunity for the up-and-coming actor, but it ended up being a pivotal moment in her youth. According to an interview with W magazine, this role led to Kaley's first kiss. Though it wasn't onscreen, she went on a date with an actor from the movie who ended up being fired. At least the unknown, almost-Disney-Channel-star gets to say he kissed Penny from "The Big Bang Theory." 

"Alley Cats Strike" wasn't the end of Kaley's work with Disney. From 2004-'06, she also voiced Brandy on the animated series "Brandy & Mr. Whiskers," which found her working with voice actors like Charlie Adler, Tom Kenny, and Tara Strong. She also lent her voice talents to the "Bratz" franchise as Kirstee

Chasing her big break

By the time she was a teenager, Cuoco was a nationally ranked tennis player. She also took up horseback riding. But she was onto something with acting. She gave up tennis to pursue her career, though she decided to keep on riding, which was a choice she never regretted. "I have six horses, and they have been the biggest blessing in my life. Horseback riding is why I'm so centred [sic], especially in this business," she told The New Zealand Herald. "I wouldn't have my career without it."

The next decade brought even more opportunities. Cuoco played Maureen McCormick in the TV movie "Growing Up Brady" in 2000. The same year, she scored a recurring role on the CBS sitcom "Ladies Man." Cuoco came on as Bonnie Stiles for Season 2, joining a cast that included Alfred Molina, Betty White, and Sharon Lawrence.

She was working nonstop and proving herself as an actress. But she still hadn't gotten her big break.

8 Simple Rules changed Cuoco's life

Kaley Cuoco had such a bad audition when she was a teenager that she almost blew her career. But producers could see she was right for the show and called her agent, asking if she would try again. In 2002, at age 17, she got her breakout role when she was cast as Bridget Erin "Beach" Hennessy on ABC's "8 Simple Rules," starring John Ritter and Katey Sagal. As Bridget, Cuoco played the oldest child in the Hennessy family, a beautiful, ditzy blond preoccupied with boy drama. She embraced the role.

"So I did end up getting the job, which totally changed the course, truly, of, actually, my life and my career," she told Sidewalks. "It kind of put me on the map and made me realize how much I love sitcom."

When Ritter died suddenly in 2003, Cuoco was heartbroken, and the show faced an unexpected challenge. New characters were introduced and portrayed by actors including David Spade, James Garner, and Suzanne Pleshette. "8 Simple Rules" continued until 2005, and Cuoco knew she would never forget her time there. "To this day if anyone asks me [about] John Ritter, I get this chill because I love him so much," she told Entertainment Tonight.

Cuoco 'charmed' in her next major role

In 2005, Kaley Cuoco was offered a role on The WB's "Charmed" in its eighth season. Now known for her work on "8 Simple Rules," she didn't have to audition, and producers didn't even mind that she'd never watched the show (per South Coast Today).

She was initially nervous to come on as Billie Jenkins, a new witch among a star-studded cast including Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan, and Shannen Doherty. But she felt at home after a warm welcome from Milano. "I know what it's like when someone new comes on," Cuoco told Yahoo Entertainment. "There's people like [Alyssa] who really do mold your career and mold your path. So that was a really good moment."

Cuoco appeared in 22 episodes throughout the final season, and viewers hoped she might get a spin-off series. That was not to be, but fans would see her again onscreen soon enough.

Kaley stars in a Lifetime movie

Following her work on "Ladies Man," "8 Simple Rules," and "Charmed," Kaley kept consistently booking roles. During this time in the mid-2000s, she starred in plenty of TV shows and movies, from voicework as Elena Potato, one of the protagonists in the Kids' WB show "Monster Allergy," to smaller roles on shows like "Prison Break" and an unaired pilot called "Secrets of a Small Town." 

One of Kaley's roles put her in an odd situation. In the Lifetime movie "To Be Fat Like Me," which is based on a true story, Kaley plays Alyson, a high school athlete who dons a fat suit in a social experiment to see how differently overweight people are treated by society. The film's reviews played out exactly as you'd think they would for a Lifetime movie — the Hollywood Reporter called it "preachy" and "heavy-handed" but also praised the performances of Cuoco and Caroline Rhea, who plays her mother. 

Overall, despite this film's blatantly obvious message, it's a decent showcase of Cuoco's skill as a dramatic actor, which wouldn't be utilized as much until her HBO Max series "The Flight Attendant." Her next big break saw her sticking to her comedy chops.

Her Big Bang audition set off a whirlwind

When Kaley Cuoco first auditioned for "The Big Bang Theory," she didn't get the part of Penny. In fact, the role didn't even exist early on. Cuoco tried out for a different version of the character, a girl named Katie. At 19 years old, however, she was too young for the part. After filming the first pilot, producers decided to make some changes. That's when they created Penny, brought Cuoco back, and cast her.

"I came in, I got the job and it got picked up and it was, like, this whirlwind," she told Entertainment Tonight. "It was awesome."

Penny started off as a bubbly, pretty, girl-next-door type. Over the course of 12 seasons on the show, Cuoco had the chance to put her skills to work, and she ran with it. She created an edgier character with more depth, who played a major role in the sitcom's success. But the credit really goes to Cuoco herself, an actor who fans will follow to any future project.

Kaley shows off her dance skills

Kaley's time on "The Big Bang Theory" was certainly a career highlight. Fans don't even need to watch a blooper reel to see how much fun the cast and crew had filming the show in front of a live studio audience. An Entertainment Weekly article did a deep dive on what it's like to see "The Big Bang Theory" film in person, including a warm-up act by Cuoco and Galecki. However, some surprises are meant for just the one lucky studio audience. 

In 2012, Kaley organized a flash mob on the set of "The Big Bang Theory." Set to the tune of songs like Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," Kanye West's "Gold Digger," and Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)," the cast and crew (save for Jim Parsons, who waited his turn at the end to drop his "Bazinga" catchphrase) surprised the audience and producers with a dance routine, with choreography helped by Kaley's sister Briana. 

After a video of the flash mob went viral, Kaley talked about it at a Paley Center panel, describing organizing it as a "dream" of hers. Thankfully, they got to do it again in 2014, and then once more during the shooting of the final season, this time with a soundtrack including "Larger Than Life" by the Backstreet Boys, and Parsons actually joining the dancing festivities. 

Kaley skyrockets to stardom

The success of "The Big Bang Theory" soon made Kaley Cuoco a recognizable face in the world of television comedy. It wasn't long until that face began appearing on the covers of magazines, in commercials, and elsewhere in Hollywood. In 2010, she hit the cover of Maxim, and in 2011, she was included in Allure magazine's "Naked Truth" feature. 

Kaley's success as a TV personality also led to some prestige hosting gigs. In 2011, she hosted the Teen Choice Awards, the same show she won "Choice TV Breakout Star: Female" for "8 Simple Rules." She also hosted the People's Choice Awards consecutively in 2012 and 2013Variety even speculated in 2013 that she would be a great choice to host the Emmys, though this never panned out. However, she later won awards in 2014 and 2015 for her work on "The Big Bang Theory." 

Kaley Cuoco's TV stardom doesn't end there: She also made a splash joining William Shatner for a series of Priceline.com commercials. Cuoco played Shatner's character's daughter, which would've made the characters of "The Big Bang Theory" lose their minds. She's continued to promote Priceline.com as recently as 2022, though lately without Shatner at her side. She's also since done TV spots for Toyota and Smirnoff vodka

Kaley takes on bigger roles in the 2010s

The 2010s saw Kaley Cuoco's career expand beyond her beloved CBS sitcom. In 2011, she spent her "Big Bang" hiatus appearing alongside James Marsden in the Easter-themed comedy "Hop." The movie found Kaley acting opposite a computer-animated character for the first time, which in an interview with Collider she called "very strange." In addition to this family-friendly flick, Cuoco also landed roles in much more adult comedies. 

In 2014, she executive produced and starred in "Authors Anonymous," where she played a writer whose overnight success results in the ire of her former weekly writers group. She also played a supporting role in "The Wedding Ringer" with Kevin Hart and Josh Gad, which received mostly negative reviews from critics. However, she and Gad later reunited to compete against each other in an episode of "Lip Sync Battle," where Kaley performed songs by Ludacris and Britney Spears. Kaley also made a cameo in the unrated version of Seth MacFarlane's film "A Million Ways to Die in the West." Hopefully, that means she wasn't offended by Family Guy's lampooning of "The Big Bang Theory." 

In 2015, Kaley also starred in the independent film "Burning Bodhi," about a group of friends who reunite after one of them passes away. Along with her supporting role in 2011's "The Last Ride," a biopic of country legend Hank Williams, this marked Kaley's first official foray into dramatic film. 

Cuoco becomes part of the highest-paid cast in sitcom history

The longer "The Big Bang Theory" went on, the more its cast, including Kaley Cuoco, became sitcom royalty. It also became important that the show didn't suffer a loss of actors, which is known to happen when sitcoms continue for years. On CBS, this happened with Chuck Lorre's other popular program, "Two and a Half Men," which lost Charlie Sheen after a very public meltdown. Suffice it to say, Lorre wanted an easier relationship with the cast of "Big Bang." 

This meant that over the course of 12 seasons, many of the show's biggest stars received tremendous pay raises. In the first season, the main trio of Cuoco, Galecki, and Parsons each earned $60,000 as their salary for the entire season, while the other main cast members netted $45,000. Cuoco and her castmates negotiated for higher payment in 2010, resulting in each actor gaining $200,000 per episode. By the last season, Cuoco, Galecki, Parsons, Simon Helberg, and Kunal Nayyar were each getting $1 million per episode, making them one of the highest-paid casts in sitcom history

Post-"The Big Bang Theory," Cuoco's fortune has allowed her to play a bigger role in executive producing projects, like "Harley Quinn" and "The Flight Attendant." It's easy to see why the cast was persuaded to stay on as long as they could. 

Cuoco turns to grittier projects

In October 2017, Kaley Cuoco founded her own production company, Yes, Norman Productions, entering a multi-year deal with Warner Bros. to develop projects together. The first of these new endeavors was an adaptation of Chris Bohjalian's novel "The Flight Attendant" as a limited series starring Cuoco as main character Cassie Bowden, a flight attendant who sleeps with a passenger only to wake up to find his dead body in bed with her. 

"The Flight Attendant" premiered on HBO Max in November 2020, co-starring "Game of Thrones" alumni Michiel Huisman, "Girls" star Zosia Mamet, and comedy legend Rosie Perez. Despite the show being originally ordered as a limited series, its success led to HBO picking it up for a second season, which premiered in 2022. Cuoco's partnership with Warners continued in 2019 with the premiere of "Harley Quinn," an adult animated series starring Cuoco as the titular Joker sidekick. It initially premiered on DC Universe before moving to HBO Max ahead of its third season debuting in 2022. 

"Harley Quinn" is not your ordinary DC superhero action show, as it mostly parodies the comic book universe and the characters within it. This has also influenced the show's cast, which consists of an ensemble of comedy greats, such as Alan Tudyk voicing Joker and Clayface, as well as Lake Bell voicing Harley's friend and future lover, Poison Ivy. Overall, Kaley's post-"Big Bang" projects are definitely catered to her older audience.

The Big Bang Theory ends in 2019

All good things must come to an end, and that includes "The Big Bang Theory." In summer 2018, creator Chuck Lorre called the cast into his office, where Jim Parsons announced the upcoming 12th season would be his last (via Variety). Sticking with Lorre's plan not to continue without any of its main cast members, the show prepared to reach its finale. Cuoco, maybe more than the rest of the cast, was in shock at Parsons's decision, feeling as if she could have continued on. 

In May 2019, the cast and crew gathered one last time in front of a studio audience to shoot the series finale, "The Stockholm Syndrome." In the final episode, Penny is revealed to be pregnant, which many fans and critics felt was a betrayal of her character arc, as the character had stated in previous seasons that she didn't want kids. Still, Sheldon's Nobel Prize speech at the very end, dedicated to his friends, makes for a heartwarming and tear-filled end to the beloved comedy franchise. 

Unfortunately for "Big Bang" fans hoping for a reunion episode, Kaley Cuoco has no desire to have a do-over on the series, feeling satisfied with how it ended. In an interview on "The One Show," she claimed she'll never be able to compare anything she does in the future to her experience on the show.

Kaley continues to face struggle as an actor

Having a successful sitcom doesn't guarantee success later in your career. After her award-winning, critically-acclaimed turn as Penny on "The Big Bang Theory," Kaley Cuoco has experienced some of the acting struggles she was likely used to in her teenage years. One such struggle cost her a role in Rian Johnson's sequel to "Knives Out," which she auditioned for but ultimately wasn't cast in.

In a cover story for Glamour magazine, Kaley discussed how she was convinced she had a part in the film, but the part instead went to Kate Hudson. She admitted that her bags were already packed to head to Greece, where the movie was shot, but she didn't stay down for long: She was shortly after offered a role in "Meet Cute," a romantic comedy she filmed with Pete Davidson

Thankfully, Kaley remains optimistic that she'll be invited back for a third "Knives Out" movie, if there is one. Until then, she'll have to settle for her acclaimed turn in "The Flight Attendant," her popular DC supervillain-led animated series, and having one of the biggest sitcoms of the 2010s on her resume. But still, one can't help but wonder how less funny television would be today if Kaley Cuoco had stuck with her tennis aspirations