Thursday, August 02, 2018

Actor salaries for sitcoms

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Greg:

In an ensemble type show (The Office for example), does each actors salary based on how involved they are in the episode, or is it set per episode. Is Creed paid more when he has a few lines vs when he is basically a recurring (background type) character?

Each actor receives so much money per episode, all agreed upon in advance.  

Salaries for each actor are negotiated separately. The rate can vary depending on whether this is the actor’s first TV series or fourth. Once an actor has been in a series he has a base salary (known as his “quote”). The agent will try to improve on his quote for the new series.

The rates can also vary depending upon the actor’s popularity. Certain actors are audience favorites. They test well. So they can demand more money.

And if the actor is a current “flavor of the month” he might be offered multiple pilots or series. That means a bidding war.

Number of episodes is another issue. Some series regulars make deals for all shows produced. Other, more supporting characters, might be offered 8 of 13, something like that.

And then there are actors who are hired on a freelance basis. They may be a recurring character in the world of the show (say a waitress at the diner they occasionally frequent or a co-worker you see twice a season). The producer is willing to chance that that actor might be booked on something else the week he needs him so he won’t be available. In most of those cases, it’s easier to just write him out rather then make him a series regular. And there is always the danger that he gets a series of his own and is therefore no longer available to you.

You can’t go by the number of lines because for supporting characters that can fluctuate wildly from week to week. He may have a lot to do one episode and three lines the next.

One final thing I should note: Actors make their deals contingent upon approval from the network. In other words, a network can’t fall in love with an actor and then, thinking he has everyone over a barrel, start to negotiate for way more money. Deals have to be signed before the actor reads for the network. This protects the network and studio but it also means a lot more deal making for business affairs. Because if three actors read for every part that means that 2/3rd of them will be rejected and their deals null and void.

It’s pretty cutthroat out there so whatever the actor can get from the studio and network, God bless ‘em.


Laura said...

Very informative, thanks Ken.

Hope you write a blog on writers' salary. What they get paid, and what the residuals are like? Interested, since a lot of people talk about residuals here and other websites too, but not the number. Just an idea.

Magazines and news sites talk about the salaries of everyone except the writers. Is it a big secret :)

E. Yarber said...

There was an actress in my martial arts class who landed a job on whatever version of STAR TREK was being made at the time. The idea was that she'd begin as a nameless crew member, essentially a glorified extra, then after being seen in the background of scenes for a while, she'd gradually get a line or two here and there with the option of expanding into a supporting character. Unfortunately, some slimy guy got her pregnant, which apparently never happened on the Enterprise, so she had to leave the show when she began showing. I wound up taking care of a kid two afternoons a week for four years, but I just regarded him as a hairless cat and we got along okay.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Remember the old days when actors didn't care about the money or the fame and more about the quality of their work? I remember Jack Klugman once saying that each individual castmember on FRIENDS made more money in two days than he and Tony Randall both made together in the five years of THE ODD COUPLE, but then shrugged it off saying they may have made more money, but probably didn't have as much fun as he and Tony did.

Covarr said...

The phrase "occasionally frequent" is so beautifully oxymoronic. I love it.

Mike said...

No disrespect to Jack Klugman, but isn't that what every low earner says about the high earners?

I am pretty sure the'Friends' actors had a lot of fun too with their millions, except maybe David Schwimmer.

Anonymous said...

Klugman may have had a point in terms of actual numbers, but that doesn't take into account inflation, or the different landscape 30 years later - syndication and cable reruns were bringing in millions, and so were DVDs. No one thought in 1975 that syndicated reruns of The Odd Couple would be the hit they became - I've read some claims that the show was always on the brink of being cancelled every year it aired, although that seems doubtful - so if Klugman and Randall ever tried to renegotiate their contracts, they certainly weren't doing it from a position of strength.

It was Schwimmer's idea for the Friends cast to negotiate salary increases as a unit, according to Warren Littlefield's book Top of the Rock. That may have cost him a little money early on, but not much.

Greg said...

Thanks Ken.

Unique supporting (character) actors get the best deal.

Creed for president.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Unknown That was actually the main reason why Klugman decided THE ODD COUPLE needed to just go ahead and end after five years: they were always canceled every season due to low ratings/numbers, but those would pick up during summer repeats, which would merit a renewal for another season . . . after this went on year after year, Klugman grew tired of it and decided if they're going to get canceled, just cancel and be done with it already, hence Season 5 being the last. Randall argued he felt the show - in terms of the writing and everything else - had really hit its stride by that final season, and thought they could have gone on a few more years afterward, but added, "Jack is always right."

But, either way, it seems like news of salary disputes, actors striking, and the desire for more money on successful TV series seem to be about as common these days as news of politician sex scandals.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Joseph Scarborough: I doubt strongly that there was *ever* a time when actors didn't care about the money and fame. Actors have always had to pay rent or mortgages, eat, and think about where their next job was coming from. Fred Astaire has said openly in interviews that "We were just trying to make a buck" and Shakespeare got paid, too.


J Lee said...

Side question to this one -- How does an actor handle negotiations if he's not part of the main ensemble, but is just an occasional member who the writers and producers decide they can get more out of? Jamie Farr and Alan Arbus were like that on MASH, one becoming an actual regular and the other a very frequent recurring character. Does the actor just ease into higher salary requests at the start, knowing the he/she isn't vital to the show yet, or do they ask their agent to be more aggressive, since the shows they've been in got such a good audience response?

Janet Ybarra said...

No disrespect to Jack Klugman either, but the one thing I always admired about the FRIENDS increases is they negotiated as a "I'll go my way and you see what you can do."

They at least respected the worth of the ensemble.

Which stands in contrast, unfortunately, to the recent negotiations on the new HAWAII FIVE-0 in which both Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park (two of my favorite actors) appear to have gotten shafted and decided to depart.

All that being said--and I fully understand the magnitude of the economics involved and the right of actors to receive their due--I just have to say that there are professions in our society, such as teachers and first responders who really truly deserve the big bucks more.

That is probably not a very "Hollywood" thing for me to say.

Andy Rose said...

@Joseph Scarbrough: Stories of money walkouts on series past are legion. Just off the top of my head... Carroll O'Connor on All in the Family. Suzanne Sommers on Three's Company. Three different title cast members on the Dukes of Hazzard walked out at different times over compensation issues.

And then there was Larry Hagman on Dallas. JR was shot in the last episode of the 3rd season. Once the Who Shot JR? craze reached fever pitch over the summer, Hagman refused to come back for a fourth season until his salary demands were met. The first two episodes of that season have JR in the hospital, played mostly by an extra whose face was obscured. (After the dispute was resolved, they were able to quickly shoot a couple of pickups of Hagman to drop into those episodes before they aired.) To Hagman's credit, he didn't try to claim any moral high ground in the matter... he just saw a chance to get more money and took it.

Mike Doran said...

That story about The Odd Couple getting 'cancelled' every season:

In the early '70s, the custom was for the networks to announce their fall schedules in the early spring, usually in the month of March.

My TV Guide collection, incomplete as it is, confirms that ABC had Odd Couple in its fall slates in each of the five seasons that it aired.
In March of those years.
Furthermore: Klugman & Randall always claimed that ABC "constantly" shifted Odd Couple's time slot during its run; a check of reference books (supplemented by my own memory) shows that except for two brief periods (one in the first season, one in the fifth), Odd Couple was always on Friday nights (the exact time sometimes varied, but the 'hopscotch factor' was not present here).

Randall & Klugman always claimed that the network always told them about the summertime "rescues".
I wonder if the "cancellation" stories coincided with K&L's negotiations for their annual salary raises …

E. Yarber said...

Check out "WGA Minimums" for a list of what various writing jobs pay. Naturally, big shot writers get big shot payments, but the union standards are a good way to get an idea of the norm.

iamr4man said...

Ken’s friend Mark Evanier has a terrific Larry Hagman story. Ken should ask him to tell it in a future podcast. You can read it here:

By Ken Levine said...


Listen to my podcast interview with Mark. He tells that story.

Anonymous said...

@E Yarber

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Andy And there's also Redd Foxx, who walked away from SANFORD AND SON at the height of its popularity over a salary dispute, gone for the last handful of episodes from Season 3, and the first handful from Season 4.

E. Yarber said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for posting actual salary information. Aside from a producer who kept me on retainer for a year and a half, my own experience has been piecework as a freelancer. Your spreadsheet should satisfy those who wonder what those with actual jobs here earn on various levels.

iamr4man said...

>>Listen to my podcast interview with Mark. He tells that story.<<
Ha! I did listen to both episodes. Maybe that’s why I remembered the story so readily! And I did a quick check on the CPI calculator and the $1,400.00 the hat cost back then works out to about $4k today.. Now that’s a lot of hat!

Janet Ybarra said...

Speaking of unique supporting actors...Ken, for an FQ perhaps you could discuss the rumor why Allan Arbus declined the rumored invite to join the main cast of MASH after Radar (Gary Burghoff) left.

Also, just a suggestion, with Alan Alda back in the news, perhaps you could give an inside look at all his contributions to the series behind the scenes over the years.

Robert Forman said... thanks. I have better things to do.