Small-Screen Star Power: These Are TV’s Top-Earning Actors, Ranked

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jul 24, 2020 8:16:24 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Apple

Every few months, a new streaming platform seems to crop up, and with each new platform comes a host of prestige, original programming. In an age of endless TV show choices, networks need a way to make their programs stand out.

One way to do that? Harness some starpower, which means Hollywood’s movie stars aren’t the only ones earning the big bucks. From breakout stars to performers-turned-producers, here are TV’s top-earning actors.

32. Viola Davis, How to Get Away with Murder | $250K

Since 2014, Viola Davis has starred in the Shonda Rhimes-produced hit How to Get Away With Murder (HtGAWM). As Annalise Keating, a law professor who becomes entangled in a murder plot with her students, Davis has created a groundbreaking antihero.

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Photo Courtesy: ABC/IMDb

In 2015, Davis became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, cementing her role’s place in TV history. Although she isn’t the top earner on our list, Davis still makes $250,000 per episode, which has contributed to her $12 million net worth.

31. Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown & the Rest of the This Is Us Main Cast | $250K

This Is Us is arguably one of the biggest — if not the biggest — shows on network television right now. Love or hate its heart-wrenching borderline melodrama, there’s no denying that the show’s five leads put their all into the show.

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Photo Courtesy: Ron Batzdorff/NBCUniversal/IMDb

Initially, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, who play Pearson parents Rebecca and Jack, made more than their co-stars due to name recognition. As of the show’s fourth season, the actors who play the Pearson kids — Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz and Justin Hartley — are now on equal footing with Moore and Ventimiglia, with all five actors making $250,000 an episode.

30. Sandra Oh, Grey’s Anatomy | $350K

Although Emmy-nominee Sandra Oh now stars in the BBC’s hit thriller Killing Eve, the actor made quite a bit of money years earlier in one of her most well-known roles. As fan-favorite Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, Oh eventually made $350,000 per episode.

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Photo Courtesy: Danny Feld/ABC/IMDb

Some sources estimate that Oh now makes less per episode on Killing Eve than she did on Shonda Rhimes’ hit medical drama. According to Australian entertainment news site Nine, Oh reels in just $100,000 per episode these days, but, despite the reported pay cut, her net worth is still an impressive $25 million.

29. Winona Ryder & Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things | $350K

After taking a relative hiatus from the silver screen, movie star Winona Ryder made a pop culture comeback with Netflix’s Stranger Things. When the first season dropped, Ryder was the most recognizable name and, thus, one of the show’s big draws.

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Photo Courtesy: Netflix

Now, of course, the whole cast has left an indelible impression on mainstream pop culture, from David Harbour’s ad hoc adoptive dad Sheriff Hopper to Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven, a girl with supernatural powers who is connected to the ever-mysterious Upside Down. Now, several seasons in, Brown and Ryder both make a reported $350,000 per episode.

28. Simon Baker, The Mentalist | $350K

For seven seasons, Simon Baker played Patrick Jane on the CBS crime drama The Mentalist. In the show, Patrick is a former "psychic" who finds himself consulting for the California Bureau of Investigation and uses his highly developed observational skills to "read" people’s minds.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS Entertainment/IMDb

According to Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate reviews, the rather episodic show "distinguishes itself from other procedurals mostly due to the talents of Simon Baker." As such, Baker is compensated in line with the way he elevated The Mentalist. At the show’s height, Baker nabbed a cool $350,000 per episode.

27. Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond | $450K

Sure, Everybody Loves Raymond, but, in the end, the show wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without Ray Romano’s incredible castmates. The actors who played Romano’s character’s parents, Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle, were already established, but the show’s breakout star may have been Patricia Heaton.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS/IMDb

As Ray’s wife, Deborah, Heaton refused to put up with Ray’s antics and never hesitated to call him out. For her wonderful performance as a mom who’s just trying to keep it all together, Heaton won two Lead Actress in a Comedy Series Emmys. Oh, and she ended up making $450,000 per episode.

26. Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU | $450K

Without a doubt, Mariska Hargitay is best known for her role as New York Police Department Captain Olivia Benson. In fact, she has starred in NBC’s hit drama series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit since 1999. That’s right — Hargitay has two decades under her belt.

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Photo Courtesy: NBCUniversal/IMDb

That also means she’s become so synonymous with the ever-popular program that the network has no choice but to pay her an impressive sum. Currently, Hargitay makes around $450,000 per episode for her starring role on SVU, which means she reels in about $13 million a year, all of which has contributed to her staggering $50 million net worth.

25. Sofía Vergara, Modern Family | $500K

Without a doubt, Modern Family is one of the most successful network comedies to hit screens in the last decade. While most of its stars collect impressive paychecks, Sofía Vergara is known for making quite a bit for her role on the show.

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Photo Courtesy: Tony Rivetti/ABC/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

Per episode, Vergara earns about $500,000, and, off-screen, her widely watched role on television has landed her several high-paying endorsement deals. Between her Modern Family salary and her endorsements, Vergara earns over $40 million a year, which has caused her net worth to skyrocket to at least $180 million.

24. Five Members of the Game of Thrones Cast | $500K

According to Finance Monthly, Game of Thrones cost about $1.5 billion to make but, throughout its run, earned HBO a staggering $3.1 billion through subscriptions alone. Needless to say, it’s a runaway hit, especially when you factor in all of the royalties and merch sales.

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Photo Courtesy: HBO/IMDb

However, another thing Game of Thrones is known for is its gigantic ensemble cast. While salaries range depending upon each actor’s role in the show and off-screen notoriety, five of the show’s main cast members — Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau — were all making $500,000 an episode by the final season.

23. Ellen Pompeo, Grey’s Anatomy | $575K

Ellen Pompeo rose to international fame thanks to her role on the popular medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, in which she plays the titular character, Meredith Grey. The Golden Globe nomination and Screen Actors Guild Award Pompeo earned are great benchmarks for her achievements, but her showings in Forbes’ year-end lists may be even more telling.

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Photo Courtesy: ABC/IMDb

In 2016, the Grey’s Anatomy star ranked fourth on a list of highest-paid TV actresses after she earned $14.9 million that year. Just two years later, she climbed even higher on the list, nabbing the fifth-highest-paid actor (regardless of gender) spot thanks to her salary of $23.6 million — which equates to an impressive $575,000 an episode.

22. Julia Roberts, Homecoming | $600K

Back in the 1990s, Julia Roberts was America’s (silver screen) sweetheart thanks to decade-defining rom-coms like Runaway Bride and My Best Friend’s Wedding, as well as her Oscar-winning turn in Erin Brockovich.

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Photo Courtesy: Amazon Studios/IMDb

After a slight renaissance in 2010 following Eat Pray Love, Roberts, like many Hollywood stars before her, turned her attention to the small screen. In 2018, she starred in Amazon’s original series Homecoming, playing Heidi Bergman, a caseworker at a facility that allegedly helps returning soldiers reacclimate to civilian life. Amazon knew Roberts’ star power would be a huge draw and, in turn, paid her a cool $600,000 per episode.

21. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seinfeld | $600K (+ $500K for Veep)

Eight-time Emmy-winning actor Julia Louis-Dreyfus first found acclaim for portraying Elaine Benes in Seinfeld and then for playing the titular character in The New Adventures of Old Christine. For most performers, those roles would have been it — career-defining and full of success. But Louis-Dreyfus struck gold a third time with her starring role on Veep.

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Photo Courtesy: Conan/TBS/IMDb

Louis-Dreyfus won the Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy for all but one of Veep’s seven seasons. In addition to awards-show gold, the legendary comedian has also earned some impressive paychecks. By the end of Seinfeld’s run, Louis-Dreyfus was making about $600,000 an episode, while her acting gig in Veep nabbed her about $500,000 per episode. Thanks to her other acting and producing salaries, Louis-Dreyfus’ net worth towers at $250 million.

20. Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men | $620K

Although Jon Cryer hit it big early on in his career with roles in now-classic films like Pretty in Pink, it took him quite a while to find his footing in television. In fact, three shows in which he had secured prominent roles all failed to last more than two dozen episodes. Finally, in 2003, he landed Two and a Half Men.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS/IMDb

Although Cryer is billed as the co-lead Alan Harper, his fellow lead (and on-screen brother) Charlie Sheen took home a way bigger paycheck. Nevertheless, Cryer won two Emmys over the show’s 12 seasons and took home about $620,000 an episode. Not too shabby, even if he did play second fiddle to Sheen.

19. Dwayne Johnson, Ballers | $650K

For eight years, Dwayne Johnson was a professional wrestler in the World Wrestling Federation (now, WWE), where he was best known by his ring name, The Rock. In 1999, he landed his first acting gig with a guest spot on That ‘70s Show and, by 2001, he’d landed the blockbuster film The Mummy Returns.

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Photo Courtesy: HBO/IMDb

Despite technically getting his start in television, Johnson is perhaps better known for his silver screen roles, which have grossed over $10.5 billion globally. The former wrestler’s box-office power makes him a hot commodity, which explains why HBO paid him an incredible $650,000 per episode for Ballers — an amount that’s surely padded his $320 million net worth.

18. Norman Reedus, The Walking Dead | At Least $650K

Talk to any Walking Dead fan and they’ll probably name Norman Reedus’ motorcycle-riding, crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon among their favorite characters. Since the show’s first season, Reedus’ tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold has conquered the undead — and fared far better than most other series regulars.

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Photo Courtesy: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC/IMDb

Since the show’s lead, Andrew Lincoln, left a few seasons ago, it only makes sense that Reedus — whose character is one of the most marketable — would be collecting an impressive paycheck. Reedus used to make about $350,000 an episode, but that’s reportedly skyrocketed to $650,000 — though some sources claim the figure is closer to $1 million.

17. Mark Harmon, NCIS | $700K

Like Mariska Hargitay, Mark Harmon is synonymous with the show that’s kept him in the pop culture consciousness for so many years. On NCIS, he plays agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, a role he was cast in after the series’ creator saw his Emmy-nominated performance in The West Wing years earlier.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS/IMDb

Since 2003, Harmon has played Gibbs and, by 2008, he’d become a producer (later executive producer) on NCIS as well. Needless to say, this former football star has been able to carve out a nice paycheck, earning roughly $700,000 per episode. When all’s said and done, Harmon’s net worth towers at $100 million.

16. Ashton Kutcher, Two and a Half Men | $700K

Although Ashton Kutcher is best known in the television sphere for his career-launching role as Michael Kelso in the sitcom That ‘70s Show, that’s not where he earned his biggest small-screen paycheck. And, no, his most impressive TV pay day wasn’t from Punk’d either.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS Photo Archive/IMDb

After navigating a successful film career, with hits like The Butterfly Effect and a slew of rom-coms, Kutcher made his return to TV, replacing Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men’s lead role. Eager to continue the show’s runaway success, CBS tried to outdo the Sheen scandal by reeling in some Hollywood muscle, which is how Kutcher ended up making $700,000 per episode.

15. David Hyde Pierce, Frasier | $750K

David Hyde Pierce’s first TV break looked like it was going to come in the form of a Norman Lear-produced political comedy, The Powers That Be. Despite being created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the power duo behind Friends, the series was scrapped after just 21 episodes.

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Photo Courtesy: NBCUniversal/IMDb

Luckily, the cancellation freed up Pierce’s schedule, causing Frasier’s producers to create the role of Niles Crane for Pierce, in part because of his resemblance to the show’s star Kelsey Grammer. Pierce’s iconic role landed him an impressive four Emmy wins and about $750,000 per episode, adding heaps to his $40 million net worth.

14. Michael C. Hall, Dexter | $830K

After playing mortician David Fisher on HBO’s critically acclaimed Six Feet Under, Michael C. Hall tried out a character on the other side of the knife. And by that we mean, instead of figuring out how someone died, he did the murdering as serial killer (and blood spatter analyst) Dexter Morgan.

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Photo Courtesy: Showtime/IMDb

Although Showtime’s beloved series Dexter has a notably rough ending, the show got off to a great start and earned Hall a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Dexter ran for an impressive eight seasons and, by the end, Hall’s per-episode paycheck totaled around $830,000, adding immensely to his $25 million net worth.

13. The Cast of The Big Bang Theory | $900K

Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, The Big Bang Theory ran for 279 episodes and a staggering 12 seasons. The hit sitcom, which originally focused on five geeky characters living in Pasadena, California, went on to expand its cast, but its three original leads, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco, received higher pay days at first.

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Photo Courtesy: Cliff Lipson/CBS/IMDb

For the first few seasons, the trio each took home about $60,000 per episode, but, as the show gained popularity, that figure jumped to $200,000 per episode. Then, in August 2014, the three principal actors started making $1 million per episode. Castmates Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar were paid the same rate, but all five actors took a 10% pay cut in 2017 so that co-stars Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik could increase their deals to $500,000 an episode.

12. The Cast of Friends | $1 million

Before the cast of The Big Bang Theory banded together to take pay cuts for the good of the whole cast, the six lead actors in Friends teamed up to ask for a history-making pay raise. Their jobs weren’t a joke — and they were far from broke.

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Photo Courtesy: NBCUniversal/IMDb

During the first season, the core actors each made $22,000 per episode, but, by season two, the network began paying them unevenly, leading the on- and off-screen pals to demand equal pay for season three. Led by David Schwimmer, the cast teamed up again to negotiate for higher final-season salaries, eventually landing a whopping $1 million per episode each.

11. Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale | $1 million

Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel made TV history, becoming the first original drama produced by a streaming platform to actually win a Best Series award at the Emmys. Much of that success is due to Elisabeth Moss’ incredible performance — and her paycheck certainly reflects that.

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Photo Courtesy: George Kraychyk/Hulu/IMDb

Well, it does now anyway. When Moss first came to The Handmaid’s Tale, she was fresh off of AMC’s Mad Men, which, although a hit, only saw her earning $75,000 per episode. Needless to say, Moss’ first season on Handmaid’s saw her earning a more conservative $175,000 per episode, though, thanks to all the critical acclaim, that figure has jumped to $1 million.

10. Reese Witherspoon & Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies | $1 million

The bougie Monterey moms who populate the world of Big Little Lies aren’t the only ones who can afford palatial, ocean-front homes. The series, which was developed for HBO, starred five actors who all have a lot of box-office experience, from Divergent’s Shailene Woodley and Mad Max: Fury Road’s Zoey Kravitz to Jurassic Park’s Laura Dern.

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Photo Courtesy: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO/IMDb

And, we can’t forget Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, who both picked up producing credits as well. For their wealth of experience — and unrivaled star power — Kidman and Witherspoon each earned a reported $1 million per episode. That’s money to kill for, isn’t it?

9. Helen Hunt & Paul Reiser, Mad About You | $1 million

From 1992 to 1999, Mad About You nabbed 12 Emmy Awards and four Golden Globes, becoming one of NBC’s most successful sitcoms at the time. The key to that success was the easy chemistry between the show’s leads, Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser.

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Photo Courtesy: NBCUniversal/IMDb

In the show, Hunt, a PR specialist, and Reiser, a documentary filmmaker, play newlyweds who navigate both life’s minutiae and its more troubling hurdles. The stars were paid equally for their work — something that was outlined in their contracts — and, by the last season, they were both making an impressive $1 million per episode.

8. Kerry Washington & Reese Witherspoon, Little Fires Everywhere | $1.1 million

If you want to make the big bucks in television, you should clearly seek out Reese Witherspoon’s next production. The actor got a taste for producing in the film world, thanks to standout films like Wild, and soon turned her attention to television with Big Little Lies.

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Photo Courtesy: Hulu/IMDb

Now, Witherspoon has traded HBO for Hulu with Little Fires Everywhere, a ‘90s suburban drama based on Celeste Ng’s book of the same name, which tells the story of two women and their families — one seemingly picture-perfect and one a bit more enigmatic. Little Fires stars Witherspoon and Scandal’s Kerry Washington and, for their stellar performances, both actors make just over $1 million per episode.

7. Tim Allen, Home Improvement | $1.25 million

Although he now stars in the on-again/off-again sitcom Last Man Standing, Tim Allen made a name for himself in the ‘90s as Tim "The Toolman" Taylor on the ABC sitcom Home Improvement, which ran for eight seasons.

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Photo Courtesy: Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

One of the most-watched sitcoms of the time, Home Improvement launched Allen’s career, making him a household name and opening up a bevvy of feature film projects for him to jump on, like voicing Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. According to E! News, Allen ended up making $1.25 million per episode.

6. Kelsey Grammer, Frasier | $1.6 million

In 1984, Kelsey Grammer played Frasier Crane for the first time on an episode of the hit series Cheers. After being introduced to the show’s creators by his Broadway peer Mandy Patinkin, Grammer landed a six-episode arc — which, of course, ended with him becoming a regular cast member on Cheers until the show ended in 1993.

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Photo Courtesy: NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

That same year, Grammer became the lead in Frasier, perhaps the most successful spin-off show in TV history. During the show’s 11-year run, Grammer directed dozens of episodes, won four of 11 consecutive Emmy nominations and made about $700,000 per episode. However, thanks to his other roles on the show, E! News estimates the total earnings per episode worked out to be closer to $1.6 million.

5. Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men | $1.8 million

Charlie Sheen made a name for himself in the 1980s with films like Platoon, Wall Street and Major League. The comedic actor slowly transitioned from the silver screen to the small one when he replaced Michael J. Fox on Spin City. That Golden Globe-winning role showed that Sheen had the chops for TV and, a few years later, he landed Two and a Half Men.

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Photo Courtesy: Greg Gayne/Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images via IMDb

His career-defining role on Two and a Half Men earned him several Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, but, perhaps more impressively, it earned him the title of television’s highest-paid actor in 2010 thanks to his $1.8 million per-episode paycheck. Sheen, who struggled with addiction and allegations of domestic violence in his personal life, was eventually fired after he slung derogatory comments at the show’s creator Chuck Lorre.

4. Ray Romano, Everybody Loves Raymond | $1.8 million

Standup comedian Ray Romano got an unconventional start in television. Well, it was unconventional for someone who now has a net worth of $130 million, but it wasn’t too unconventional for a struggling comic. After appearing in several comedy competitions, including Star Search, Romano landed the sitcom NewsRadio.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS/Getty Images

Shortly after, the comic was fired, but, thanks to an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, Romano formed some connections at CBS. The rest is history: Romano’s show, Everybody Loves Raymond, earned him an Emmy (out of six nominations). And with several credits to his name — star, creator, writer — sources estimate he made around $1.8 million per episode.

3. Reese Witherspoon & Jennifer Aniston, The Morning Show | $2 million

Eager to hop into the streaming wars, the folks over at Apple knew they needed some starpower to help the AppleTV+ programming stand out from the crowd. Naturally, they turned to two of television’s most successful women, Friends alum Jennifer Aniston and Big Little Lies star Reese Witherspoon.

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Photo Courtesy: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Apple

In The Morning Show, Aniston plays Alex Levy, a co-anchor on a popular morning news program who has to deal with the fallout of her on-air partner, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), being fired as a result of sexual misconduct. Witherspoon plays Aniston’s rival of sorts, a chaotic field reporter named Bradley Jackson. Sparing no expense, Apple spent $15 million per episode on The Morning Show, with the leads both earning $2 million an episode, excluding their producing fees.

2. Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld | $2.4 million

For "a show about nothing," Seinfeld certainly made something. In fact, between padded contracts and all those royalties, the show was a runaway financial success for everyone involved — especially for star, co-creator, producer and writer Jerry Seinfeld, who made $1 million an episode just for the acting portion of his job description.

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Photo Courtesy: NBCUniversal/IMDb

Famously, NBC tried to extend the show to a 10th season, even offering Seinfeld a whopping $5 million an episode to continue. In the end, he declined and commented that "Nine is cool. By the end, we will have done 180 shows (1+8=9). When I was thinking about quitting the show, I thought, nine. Nine is my number." Thanks to all those additional Seinfeld credits, sources estimate that the comic actually made closer to $2.4 million per episode, which helped his net worth reach a staggering $950 million.

1. Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City | $3 million

Since Sex and the City debuted on HBO in 1998, Sarah Jessica Parker has become nearly inseperable from her on-screen counterpart Carrie Bradshaw. The role as the fashion-obsessed, ever-snarky and often self-centered New York writer earned Parker two Emmys, four Golden Globes and three Screen Actors Guild Awards.

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Photo Courtesy: HBO/IMDb

In 2009, The Guardian stated that "Carrie Bradshaw did as much to shift the culture around certain women’s issues as real-life female groundbreakers." As such, Parker earned quite a pretty penny — so many pretty pennies in fact that it infamously led to a heated feud with co-star Kim Cattrall, who was making less than the show’s lead. Of course, Parker was also a producer on SatC, which undoubtedly raised her per-episode earnings. These days, her net worth is a cool $150 million.