7 TV Salary Disputes
Television salary disputes are almost as old as the Nielsen charts. Here are some examples.
1. With Friends Like These
By May 2001, the original contracts of the six Friends stars had recently expired, and NBC was slated to announce its new Fall schedule to advertisers just a few days hence. Jennifer, Courteney, the two Matts, et al, had been offered a per-salary episode increase of $600,000, but they decided to unite and hold out for $1,050,000 each. The Central Perk pack had been inspired by the unity of the Seinfeld sidekicks who'd held fast as a group and refused to return to work (and reportedly threatened to "bury the show") lest their $1 million per episode demand was met. The Seinfeld crew eventually settled for $600,000 per, but their compromise proved to be a Pyrrhic victory for many other NBC stars. The network suddenly took a firm stance and refused to be "bullied" by petulant actors. Network brass ordered a series of promo spots to be aired after the season finale; the message of each teaser was "See how it all ends." The network provided copies of the promos to the agents of each actor with a promise that they would begin airing them at noon the next day. The tactic spooked the cast enough to agree to return to the negotiating table and a settlement was quickly reached.
2. Battle of Bunker
A three-episode story arc during Season Five of All in the Family was entitled "Where's Archie?", but what viewers didn't know at the time was how close that question came to not getting answered. Series star Carroll O'Connor had suddenly demanded a salary more in keeping with a "leading man" (no numbers were ever made public) and refused to report to work until he was granted the requested pay boost. In response, the writers came up with an Archie-less story line (he disappeared mysteriously en route to a convention) and the producers began making plans to have Archie die off-screen, and have Archie's pal Stretch Cunningham eventually move in with the Bunker family. A compromise was reached, O'Connor returned to work, and the rest of the cast learned a valuable lesson about just how expendable their characters were.
3. Gettin' Jiggle with It
Despite her ditzy chick persona, Suzanne Somers was no dumb blonde. After struggling in the industry for many years as a single mom, picking up piecemeal work as a model and occasional walk-on acting gigs, she landed the role of Chrissy Snow on ABC's new sitcom Three's Company. At first Chrissy was just "one of the girls"; that is, she was one of the two female co-stars hired as John Ritter's comic foils. But Somers had gone hungry too long to let this opportunity slip through her fingers. She hired Jay Bernstein, Farrah Fawcett's manager, and pledged to give him her entire first six weeks' salary if he could make her as big a star as Farrah. Somers' hair got blonder, her costumes skimpier, and her character goofier. Suddenly she was asked to pose for magazine covers and posters apart from her castmates. As Chrissy-mania escalated, Somers fired Bernstein and her husband, Alan Hamel, stepped in as her personal manager.
One of his first moves on her behalf was to demand a per-episode salary of $150,000 (she'd been receiving $30,000 and had been offered a $5,000 increase) plus 10% ownership of the series. When the producers balked, Somers called in sick for several crucial taping days. Somers and Hamel were sure that the Suits would capitulate, but much to their chagrin they found out that auditions had been launched for a "replacement blonde." Somers' contract was not renewed, and her participation in that season's remaining episodes were reduced to Chrissy (ostensibly out of town, caring for her ailing mother) literally phoning in her few lines.
4. Throw Momma from the Series
Eight years after Rhoda ended, Valerie Harper landed back in prime time with Valerie. Valerie Hogan was a "supermom" raising three rambunctious boys almost single-handedly since her airline pilot husband was away from home much of the time. The sitcom didn't start gaining ratings steam until midway through Season Two. Once viewership increased, Harper decided that her salary should do likewise.
Her new contract specified that she would be paid $100,000 per episode (she had been getting $56,750) and she would also receive 35% of the adjusted gross profits. Harper was fairly confident her demands would be met; after all, she had successfully lobbied for a similar pay boost after the first season of Rhoda. But Lorimar Productions execs prepared a Plan B (wryly referred to in the boardroom as Throw Momma from the Series) in case Harper didn't accept their counter-offer. The suits weren't too concerned about losing their title character, as they believed that teen idol Jason Bateman, not Valerie Harper, was the show's drawing card. Valerie pulled a Suzanne Somers and failed to show up for the first taping of Season Three. Producers filmed the pre-planned Harper-less episode, killed the character in a car crash, and Brandon Tartikoff handed Harper her walking papers.
Beginning with the third season, the show was re-titled Valerie's Family – The Hogans, and finally (after a suitable period of mourning, of course) it became simply The Hogan Family.
5. The Coy and Vance Experiment
The Good Ol' Boys of the Dukes of Hazzard had almost as big of a fan following in their day as David Cassidy had during his Partridge Family prime. And, much like The Partridge Family, the Dukes of Hazzard became a marketing juggernaut with comic books, action figures and posters generating millions of dollars for the show's creators. How popular was the show? Even the General Lee - not an actual human being but a 1969 Dodge Charger - received 30,000 pieces of fan mail per month!
When Season Five began filming, series stars Tom Wopat and John Schneider (who played Luke and Bo Duke) walked off the set in a demand for both a salary increase and a percentage of the approximately $190 million merchandising revenue being generated annually. The producers responded by hiring two look-alike actors in the roles of cousins Coy and Vance Duke, with the onscreen explanation that Bo and Luke had left Hazzard County to join the NASCAR circuit.
As ratings slipped, more car chases and crashes were added to each episode in order to entice viewers, but that strategy only led to a shortage of vintage Chargers available for use on the set. Hazzard fans immediately noticed the use of plastic models and stock footage for scenes involving their beloved General Lee, and they tuned out in droves. By the end of the fifth season, the producers were willing to negotiate with Schneider and Wopat, who returned for the series' final two seasons with a sense of satisfaction and a heftier paycheck.
6. Lose a Turn
Early in his career Chuck Woolery aspired to be a singer, and it was during that era of endeavor that he first met Merv Griffin. He guested on Griffin's talk show in 1973, and Merv was impressed not so much with Woolery's singing as with his affable personality and the way he connected with an audience. A year later when Griffin started pitching a new TV game show based on the pen-and-paper game "hangman," he invited Woolery to audition for the host position. Wheel of Fortune was picked up by NBC in 1975 and quickly became one of television's most popular game shows.
All was hunky-dory for the next seven years, until Chuck had the temerity to ask Merv Griffin for a raise. Woolery felt that his $65,000 salary should be comparable to the big shooters (like Bob Barker and Richard Dawson) over at Goodson-Todman, who were reportedly earning $500,000 per year. Griffin countered with an offer of $400,000 and, in an unusual move, NBC pledged to make up the difference. However, for some reason that offer rubbed Griffin the wrong way, and he threatened to move Wheel to CBS. NBC backed down and Griffin handed Woolery his walking papers. The two men, who had once been good friends, never spoke to one another again for the rest of Merv Griffin's life.
7. Taking Advantage of a Ratings Geyser
When prime time soap Dallas debuted in 1978, it limped along in the ratings and was only renewed for a second season because CBS believed it had potential. The network's instincts were correct; the show caught on and became a top 10 Nielsen ratings hit. The catalyst behind that success was Larry Hagman's portrayal of J.R. Ewing. The oily, conniving J.R. was a new breed of anti-hero – a character viewers loved to hate. The final scene of the final episode of Season Two ended with a "cliffhanger" – J.R. Ewing was shot by an unseen assailant. The audience was left hanging longer than originally anticipated, thanks to an actor's strike that delayed the start of the Fall 1980 season. "Who Shot J.R.?" was on everyone's lips and T-shirts for months, and Larry Hagman decided to make use of the hysteria to demand a significant salary increase.
Hagman was quite candid about the situation in interviews after the fact: "If you've got a chance to make it...then make it! Frankly I don't think anyone is worth that kind of money. I think it's ridiculous except that's the way it is. I would be a fool not to take advantage of it." As it turns out, his bargaining position wasn't quite as set in stone as he believed; behind the scenes, plans were underway for Robert Culp to assume the role of J.R. Ewing if necessary. J.R. would first appear swathed in bandages, you see, and when the gauze was finally removed and Culp's face revealed, it would be explained that J.R. had required extensive plastic surgery as a result of his gunshot wounds. Hagman remained AWOL for the first two episodes of the third season (bandaged body double Ace Moore was used in his stead), but détente was finally achieved and Larry Hagman returned to spread his smarmy evil ooze around Southfork for twelve more seasons.
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