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'Friends' Cast Returning Amid Contract Dispute

Television: Actors are expected to begin work today while continuing to seek a raise to $100,000 an episode.

August 12, 1996|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The "Friends" cast is expected to be there for Warner Bros. Television when the hit NBC series begins production on its third season today.

Sources say a contract dispute has yet to be resolved but that the six principal cast members will report to work, at this point honoring their existing agreements with the studio while negotiations continue.

The program's stars--Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer--were initially said to be asking for more than $100,000 per episode each, a significant increase over the $40,000 they made last season and raises they were scheduled to receive for the coming year.

According to sources close to the discussions, most if not all of the cast members have tentatively agreed to sign for a sixth season of the show (extending the standard agreement, which covers five years) in exchange for some sort of salary increase.

The parties remain apart, however, in terms of money. Insiders say the studio's latest offer is in the neighborhood of $75,000 per episode, while the stars are holding to their $100,000 asking price. NBC has ordered at least 24 episodes for the coming season so based on those estimates, each actor would be making a minimum of $1.8 million.

Some performers in long-running comedy series make considerably more than that, since leverage in such negotiations shifts to the stars after the production company's initial five-year option is up. Roseanne and "Married . . . With Children's" Ed O'Neill, for example, are both understood to receive well into six figures per episode. They are the main leads, however, in programs heading into their ninth and 11th seasons, respectively.

Because of "Friends' " popularity, it's been widely assumed the matter would be resolved but that there would be little real progress until the production deadline approached. Word of the cast's salary demands first surfaced about a month ago, and the show is scheduled to return in mid-September.

The idea of a joint holdout appears to have originated with the cast members themselves. The three women on "Friends" are represented by Creative Artists Agency, while each of the men are with different agencies.

The actors were emboldened to engage in such a tactic after a Warner Bros. distribution executive boasted about how well the show was doing in sales into syndication. Estimates are that "Friends" will fetch more than $4 million per episode, making it one of the most profitable comedies ever, rivaling projects like "The Cosby Show" and "Home Improvement."

"This never would have happened if Warner Bros. hadn't [bragged about] that," said an agent familiar with the situation.

Actors seeking more money on hit series is nothing new, but such a concerted effort did represent something of a novelty. Word of the "Friends" situation was followed by a brief strike involving the stars of Fox's cop drama "New York Undercover," though since that show is a more marginal ratings draw the producers dealt with the situation sternly, and the matter was quickly settled.

The "Friends" stars made $22,500 each per episode during the first season, before the series became one of prime-time television's biggest hits. Since then, all the actors have secured feature film deals, though the first two movies featuring "Friends" stars--"The Pallbearer," with Schwimmer, and "Ed," starring LeBlanc--yielded disappointing box-office results.

Warner Bros. had no comment regarding the negotiations.

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