Looking back at how popular the NBC sitcom Friends became, you’d think network execs would have agreed to any salary amount to keep the actors happy. But in the early days, no one knew Friends would become a true cult classic, earning millions in revenue even years after it ended.
Those execs saw the salary demands from Jennifer Aniston (Rachel Green), David Schwimmer (Ross Geller), Courteney Cox (Monica Gellar), Matthew Perry (Chandler Bing), Matt LeBlanc (Joey Tribbiani), and Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe Buffay) as “insane.” And it almost led to the end of Friends before it got great.
The ‘Friends’ cast started out making low salaries
Casting for Friends wasn’t an easy proposition. But once co-creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane decided on who they wanted to play the six main characters, they had to figure out how much to pay them.
Of the six, Cox was probably the best-known face thanks to her work in Family Ties and Seinfeld, plus a supporting part in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. However, all six actors started out with the same exact salary when the show debuted in 1994.
Each actor made $22,500 per episode. That amount was bumped up to $40,000 per episode as the series became more popular.
Aniston and Schwimmer insisted on salary equality
After a couple seasons, fans became clamoring for more of the Ross/Rachel storyline, naturally making Aniston and Schwimmer the more popular characters on the show. The network decided to bump their pay to match audience demand. That turned into a problem for the close-knit cast.
This became such an issue for the Friends castmates that Aniston and Schwimmer entered negotiations with the intention of everyone making more money (but actually, the two actors wound up taking a pay cut).
By the fourth season, they were all making $75,000 per episode. However, that wasn’t enough either. The Friends crew decided to renegotiate their salaries again, which almost resulted in the whole show getting canceled.
‘Friends’ almost got canceled after Season 4
Network exec Harold Brook remembers the tense negotiations well. He said (via weminoredinfilm.com), “The numbers were insane when it came time to renew their contracts. The night before we were going to announce the schedule, I was in the bathroom at a restaurant and got a call from Warner Bros. ‘It’s starting,’ they said. The negotiation started around 10:00 PM and closed around 3:00 AM.”
He went on to describe just how dire the situation was — and how close the show was to being canceled. “We had two promos made,” Brook continued. “One was the season finale, and one was the series finale.”
TV producer Dick Wolf also didn’t love the negotiation process. He later reflected on how he should have handled the situation.
He said: “When they made the Friends deal, the $100,000 apiece deal, I was pretty upset. What I would have done was come out the first day, say I was disappointed the cast had chosen to negotiate in the press, and I had the unpleasant news that Matt LeBlanc wouldn’t be on the show next year. I guarantee that you’d never have gotten to a second name.”
By the end of ‘Friends,’ everyone was making $1 million per episode
A salary of $100,000 per episode sounds like a lot of money. But it’s nothing compared to the $1 million per episode each of the six Friends castmates made by the final season 10. Plus, since the actors wisely worked syndication payments into their contracts, they still make money on the Friends phenomenon that’s still popular today.
It was a risky proposition to make such aggressive salary demands and to do it together. But maybe that’s why the Friends actors really were friends in real life — and still are to this day.
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