Few jobs in television are quite so lucrative as a starring role on a hit sitcom, especially in the heyday of the 1990s. The usually working- and middle-class characters (often dads) were played by actors making orders of magnitude more money for a single episode.
This collection looks at just how big the discrepancy between the finances of the actor and character was by posing the following question: How long would it take the character to earn what the actor made for a single episode?
- Photo: ABC
Played By: Tim Allen
Character Salary: $65,000
Actor Salary: $1,250,000
With a large suburban home and a fair bit of disposable income to indulge in projects, Tim Taylor clearly wasn't strapped for cash. But the actor playing Taylor was on another financial plane entirely. At the peak of Home Improvement's initial run in the 1990s, the cast was making some serious bank. Tim Allen was reportedly pulling in $1.25 million per episode by 1998 and could have made even more if he'd accepted the chance to do a ninth season of the show.
As the host of a local cable show in the 1990s, Taylor was probably pulling in somewhere in the region of $65,000 annually - about $111,000 in today's money. The Tool Man would have to present at least 21 seasons of Tool Time to catch up with Allen's pay packet.
- Photo: Fox
Played By: Seth MacFarlane
Character Salary: $35,000
Actor Salary: $50,000
Although certainly nothing to sniff at, $50,000 per episode for Seth MacFarlane does seem incredibly low for such a long-running show on a major network. That's because the bulk of his considerable Family Guy fortune comes from his contract with Fox rather than episodically. MacFarlane provides the voices of four of the main characters and several smaller roles.
Peter Griffin's occupation and financial situation change by the episode, but if we take his present title as a shipping clerk in a brewery for reference, he probably pulls in about $35,000 per year. At that rate, it would take him just under a year and a half to match the actor's pay for an episode.
Played By: Helen Hunt
Character Salary: $200,000
Actor Salary: $1,000,000
Jamie would have likely earned quite a bit more than her on-screen husband Paul. Her career progresses over the course of the show as she climbs the ranks of a public relations firm and eventually heads her own agency. Few places would be more lucrative to run a successful PR firm from than New York City. Today, someone in her position could command upwards of half a million annually. Working backward, we can conservatively put Jamie's salary at the show's end (1999) in the ballpark of $200,000.
Helen Hunt's pay experienced a similar major uptick at the show's conclusion. For the last season (before the reboot), she and co-star Paul Reiser raked in a massive $1 million per episode. Jamie would need some time to catch up with that salary, but not all that much.
- Photo: Fox
Played By: Ed O'Neill
Character Salary: $12,000
Actor Salary: $500,000
Married... With Children made the studio more money than even Peggy Bundy could blow in several lifetimes. Accordingly, the actor playing the hapless shoe salesman was making some serious income by the end of the show's initial run. Al Bundy was shown to be making as little as $12,000 annually, so quite how he was supposed to afford a large suburban home while supporting a spendthrift stay-at-home wife and two children is anyone's guess.
It would take poor old Al nearly an entire working lifetime to pull in what Ed O'Neill made for one episode at the end of the show's run in 1997.
Played By: Desi Arnaz
Character Salary: $20,000
Actor Salary: $2,000
A bandleader and actor in the show, Ricky Ricardo's career starts to take off in the mid-1950s following a tour of Europe. By 1956, the character was making around $20,000 annually ($200,000 today). The actor playing Ricardo was similarly comfortable financially, but not mega-rich. At least not right away.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made an extremely wise deal with the studio - in exchange for accepting a lower joint salary of $4,000 per episode (rather than $5,000), the couple's production company, Desilu Studios, would retain the rights to the show. The first 180 episodes were later sold back to CBS for $5 million. They had in effect invented the concept of syndication and ensured future generations of sitcom stars would make serious money long after their show's initial runs ended.
- Photo: Cheers / NBC618 VOTES
Played By: Kelsey Grammer
Character Salary: $160,000
Actor Salary: $1,600,000
Dr. Frasier Crane really shouldn't have been able to afford that impressive apartment on a radio host's salary. Today, a radio host starting out would make around $64,000 annually in Seattle. With a hard-bargaining agent and several years on the air, Crane would probably have done a good deal better, even back in the 1990s/2000s. Still, unless he had some significant investment income, his lifestyle was well beyond his means.
The 1990s were golden years for actors in hit sitcoms, and Kelsey Grammer is among the highest-paid TV actors of all time. He apparently made an astonishing $1.6 million per episode at the show's peak, and still rakes in some $13 million annually today from reruns. Crane would have to do a whole lot of listening to match that - a decade's worth.