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