How The Big Bang Theory Cast Weathered Off-screen Romance and Salary Disputes to Form Their Tight Bond

With a genuine affection and a dash of ineffable chemistry, Kaley Cuoco, Jim Parsons and their costars turned the sitcom into the universe's biggest show.

By Sarah Grossbart May 17, 2019 1:00 PMTags
The Big Bang TheoryCBS

Making the rounds at January's Golden Globe awards, Kaley Cuoco had no qualms sharing her true feelings about the end of The Big Bang Theory's 12-season run. 

"I don't wanna leave, I don't wanna leave," she lamented to ET. "I said it. I don't wanna leave!" In fact, she'd already dreamt up a workaround. "Everyone's doing rebooting," she said, noting the way fans have embraced the likes of Gilmore Girls, Will & Grace and Veronica Mars in the everything old is new again era. "We might as well do it in, like, a year!"

Even with months to adjust to the idea, she still hasn't quite come to terms with the idea that she and the rest of her castmates have shot the 279th and final episode of CBS' wildly popular sitcom—not that she bears any resentment to Jim Parsons for making the call, deciding he was done with his run as finicky theoretical physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Allowing that they were "all OK with the choice," Cuoco told ET it would still be tough to give out those final goodbyes. "It's gonna be a lot of emotions and I love our crew. I just love the people that we're with every day so, you know, all good things come to an end."

See Kaley Cuoco's Reaction to "The Big Bang Theory" Ending

And, boy, did they have it good there for a while. Though Cuoco recently told E! News "there was a special feeling in the air," after they shot the first episode, their comedy about four nerdy Caltech scientists and the hot aspiring actress who moved across the hall was no overnight success story, netting mixed reviews and okay-ish ratings for its first two seasons. Chuck Lorre's creation was certainly funny enough, just not, you know, world creating.

But when it shifted to the slot behind Lorre's other CBS hit, Two and a Half Men, for its third season, it received a substantial ratings bump, averaging 14.22 million viewers an airing. The next year, it was tapped to anchor the network's all-important Thursday night lineup, earning a place as TV's most-watched comedy. And by the time season eight began airing, the series' original stars—Cuoco, Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar—had been handsomely rewarded for the contributions to their field. 

In a move borrowed from that other long-running multi-camera comedy, Parsons, Galecki and Cuoco teamed up to land that elusive $1 million-per-episode Friends money, while Helberg and Nayyar, in a plan reminiscent of onscreen besties Howard and Raj, joined forces to pull in paychecks in the high six-figures.

Watch: Kaley Cuoco Talks End of "The Big Bang Theory" at 2019 Globes

The much-discussed deal launched chatter about just how tight-knit the cast was. And while we'll have to wait and see if they're still hosting dinner parties and maintaining text chains á la Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox and Lisa Kudrow, all signs point to the group, which now includes regulars Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik being a strong, cohesive unit. 

When Cuoco talks about the show changing her life, she isn't just referencing the fact that it made her a millionaire many times over. As Parsons noted in the first of what was many emotional farewells to the cast, "You are all my playmates that I have fallen in love with and who have become a part of my life on set and off."

Before the gang began unraveling the mysteries of math, science and history, Parsons and Nayyar had been piecing together careers with parts on Judging Amy and NCIS, former child actress Cuoco was making a name for herself as John Ritter's daughter on 8 Simple Rules and Helberg was a regular on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Arguably the most recognizable face, Galecki was best known for a five-year run as Darlene's husband David on Roseanne

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But once The Big Bang Theory premiered in 2007, he was instantly transformed into awkward-yet-endearing physicist Dr. Leonard Hofstadter. The cast credits their slow building success to the sort of ineffable chemistry that's existed between them since day one. "Even being part of it, you don't feel you can identify it," Parsons shared during the group's 2012 Backstage interview. "Everybody does their job well, and that's the way it's always been." Agreed Cuoco, "There is quite a rhythm. We just know how to work with each other." 

Whatever the reason, everything clicked and soon Galecki and his contemporaries had become so synonymous with the geeky, but sweet, guys they played that Nayyar felt the need to speak out to those confounded by his marriage to former Miss India Neha Kapur. The tabloids, he told London's Independent, "say, 'Oh, this shy nerd is dating a former beauty queen.' I'm not Raj! I'm Kunal!" 

In real life, Galecki also got the girl, with Cuoco revealing to CBS Watch magazine in 2010 that they had dated for "almost two years." The romance "was such a huge part of my life and no one knew about it," she continued. "It was a wonderful relationship, but we never spoke a word about it and never went anywhere together."

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While their breakup could have easily derailed their success, the exes remained amicable enough to not only go on playing on-off, yet obviously meant to be pair Leonard and Penny, who, having dodged all the obstacles the writers could dream up, finally wed in season nine's premiere, but to actually remain tight off-screen. 

"We're dear friends, still. Kaley's not just an ex, she's a part of my life," Galecki, now expecting his first child with girlfriend Alaina Meyertold CBS Watch magazine in 2013. "I just don't like to speak about it. And not because I'm trying to be enigmatic; I just worry that it will conflict with people's acceptance of Leonard and Penny."

Cuoco, who invited Galecki to celebrate when she wed fellow equestrian Karl Cook this June, agreed that their split was a best case scenario situation. "Johnny's actually one of my best friends," she assured a caller during a 2015 appearance on Watch What Happens Live. "It's a situation that ended well—I understand sometimes it doesn't, [could've gone] horrible, but he's one of my dearest friends."

Partner in crime may be a more apt description. The pair recalled their attempts to trick the cast and crew while filming a season six Valentine's Day episode. Leonard and Penny were fighting in the scene, as they were apt to do, but the friendly exes took it one step further with Galecki jokingly punching Cuoco in the face. Things began to go awry as she tumbled to the ground, her head accidentally knocked into a chair, splitting open her eyebrow and causing her to bleed. Galecki unaware of her actual injury continued to fake beat her up until a crew member noticed the blood and, in a panic, sent Cuoco off for stitches. 

"We're not allowed to do those jokes anymore," Cuoco shared while telling the story at 2017's Comic-Con

Still, they discovered other ways to find fun, Cuoco delighting in the fact that they all continued to maintain a wide-eyed amazement at their ongoing success. "We still come in the next morning and we go, 'Did you see the ratings? Did people watch?'" she shared on CBS This Morning in 2016: "We are genuinely still so excited and surprised that hasn't changed...I love that about our group."

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So much so, that she said she could them continuing their routine indefinitely: "I don't want [season 10] to be the last. I can safely say no one wants it to be the last...We got a good thing going and we genuinely like each other and we have a really good job and we want to stay here for, I want to say, many more years."

That idea was given further merit in 2017, when the show's five original stars, then making $1 million per episode, each took a voluntary $2.4 million pay cut ahead of the 11th season, so that Bialik and Rauch could receive a bump in salary more in line with theirs. And while Bialik shed some doubt on the report, telling People, "I think in general, don't believe everything you read," she underlined that they were always a team. "I'm happy to report that we have a very cohesive cast and we all know that our strength is together. We all really love each other, we love going to work." 

Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

At the time there had been some fairly extensive chatter that season 10 might be the last. After all, Parsons had just enjoyed a successful turn in the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, Galecki shot the horror franchise reboot Rings, Helberg earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role in Florence Foster Jenkins and Cuoco seemed primed, as ever, for a long career as a rom-com star, thanks to parts in 2015's The Wedding Ringer and 2016's Why Him? 

And yet there they all were in January 2017 picking up their fifth straight People's Choice Awards trophy for favorite TV comedy, and turning out en masse for their seventh consecutive nomination for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Walking the carpet together, Cuoco and Parsons employed a similar banter to what they display on camera each week. When E! News' Brad Goreski asked Parsons if Cuoco was ever told no on set, he responded "I don't think it's ever happened," before joking that if she were to walk off in protest, "I would go with her, so I'm not the one to ask." 

Watch: Are Kaley Cuoco and Jim Parsons Fighting?

Cuoco, in turn, teased him for snubbing the cast, by sitting with his Hidden Figures costars instead. When he assured her, "They have kindly put our tables close together," she fired back, "Would it be weird if I sat at the Modern Family table?"

It was the type of gentle ribbing one might expect from longtime coworkers and it ended with Parsons telling Goreski, "You broke the news! There's in-fighting on Big Bang." Added Cuoco, "I'm just trying to stir up rumors. A lot of rumors going around about the show, so I just thought I'd keep throwing some in."

The truth, of course, was that the cast couldn't be more smitten with each other. Even with Parsons getting a taste of what could be with Hidden Figures and a Broadway run in the Ryan Murphy-produced The Boys in the Band, he remained deeply torn about leaving his star-making vehicle.

Monty Brinton/CBS

"It's impossible at this point to envision life without this show, which is a wonderful thing on so many levels," he told E! News in March 2018. "The other wonderful thing that turns into kind of a weird thing is the whole 'time flies when you're having fun.' The idea that when this current contract is up, 12 years will have gone by is jarring when you really put your mind to it. I don't know why I bring that up other than to say it's so hard to envision that one day after another even now. And so could the show go on? If the writers are willing and interested in writing it, yeah, absolutely." 

And, yet, when he prepared to negotiate for a 13th season, he realized his arc felt complete. "It's both as complex and as simple as just feeling innately that it was time. It speaks to a lot of things, none of them bad. There is no negative reason to stop doing Big Bang. It felt like we have been able to do this for so many years now, it doesn't feel like there is anything left on the table," he recently told Entertainment Weekly. "Not that we couldn't keep doing it, but it feels like we've chewed all the meat off this bone. I guess at a personal level, it feels like the right time in my life."

Path chosen, Deadline reported, he told Lorre on that mid-August Friday, the legendary producer using the weekend to persuade Parsons to change his stance. But when it was clear his mind was set, Lorre agreed it was an all-or-nothing proposition, they couldn't possibly go on without what he thought of as one of their "big three": Parsons, Cuoco and Galecki. 

The following Wednesday, Lorre summoned the entire cast to his office following a table read, turning the floor over to Parsons and allowing the veteran actor to tearfully inform his coworkers that he had decided to make season 12 his last. Then Lorre followed up that bombshell with one of his own: They'd all go out together. As a family.  

There were tears, to be sure, with Cuoco admitting she spent much of that next week in a dewy-eyed haze, but ultimately the cast stood together as they had done in the past. 

"We're family," Nayyar told ET at Clayton Kershaw's 6th Annual Ping Pong 4 Purpose charity fundraiser the next day. "We've spent a lot of time together, we were there when we found out together, and we're there to support each other, and that's all there is to it really."

Mark Davis/Getty Images

And as Galecki had previously noted to reporters at the 2018 TCA Winter Press Tour following a panel for his short-lived comedy Living Biblically, "I think at this point everyone's very comfortable with 12 seasons being a good time to go home and see our families."  

And with that, all that was left to do was go out with, well, a bang. 

"I hate saying that," Cuoco said on E!'s Daily Pop of the cliché, "but it's kinda true. We wanted to go out on top." 

Executive producer Steve Holland admits it's been a particularly tough challenge in the writer's room, the group not so eager to let go of this world they've helped create for more than a decade. "It's hard to say goodbye to these characters for us because we have lived with them for so long and we have poured so many of our personal life stories into these characters that people start getting choked up in the room when we start talking about that last scene, that last image and how we want to say goodbye to them," he admitted to The Hollywood Reporter


That being said, they weren't short on ideas, eager to jam in as many of the stories they've been kicking around over the years as possible while still leaving enough room to give the characters "the proper ending that they deserve." And that was a finale that was decidedly upbeat: "The DNA of the show is a happy, positive, loving show and I don't think it would feel right to leave this show on a downer note." 

In that regard, Cuoco told ET, they absolutely nailed it. "It is the most beautiful finale I have ever seen, and I love finales," she said of the episode. "I'm thrilled with [Penny's] ending, yet beginning. It's beautiful. There's not anything catastrophic, it's just beautiful. And the characters are gonna live on in your minds and in your hearts, and I think that's what is so special about it. It's really touching."

But should they find themselves grasping for ideas, Parsons has a suggestion. "The elevator, definitely. That's one of my wishes for the final episode," he told EW of the apartment building lift that's remained out of service since the pilot. "The elevator gets fixed, at least for a minute, and then we all get stuck it." 

Crammed together with her dearest of friends for an indeterminate amount of time. That sounds like a plan to Cuoco. Responding to Parsons, she told the mag, "It would be a great show ending for me!"