News for TV Majors recently linked to a Variety post on the highest paid actors in each category of television. I scanned the list of actors in the drama category looking for The Walking Dead actors but came up empty. A quick search revealed, however, that until this season of the AMC series, Andrew Lincoln was earning $90,000 per episode, or about half of what was being paid to Matthew Rhys for his work on the low-rated by critically acclaimed The Americans. Meanwhile, Norman Reedus — who plays Daryl Dixon — was being paid $80,000 an episode, compared to the $175,000 his former co-star Sarah Wayne Callies is making for the Prison Break reboot. It’s fair to assume that all the other cast members from The Walking Dead were making even less than Lincoln and Reedus.
The Walking Dead, however, is the highest rated drama on television. Why is it that its two biggest stars were only making $90,000 and $80,000 an episode respectively, while Jim Parsons and Kelly Cuoco make $1 million per episode? Could it be because The Walking Dead is an ensemble cast, and AMC can’t afford exorbitant salaries for so many actors? That’s not the likely answer because the five biggest stars of Game of Thrones — Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Kit Harrington, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau — all earn half a million dollars per episode.
It’s a very simple reason, really: Game of Thrones absolutely has to have its main cast members to finish out the series run. They are crucial to the ongoing storyline. The Walking Dead, meanwhile, can kill any cast member it wants at any time, meaning that rather than give in to the salary demands of the cast (there was speculation the cast has rallied together to ask for a raise in 2014), it can kill off expensive characters at its leisure. Indeed, doing so will not only save the series money, but it may give the show a ratings boost. As TV Guide notes, “killing off major characters … has become an effective way to keep salaries in line on shows with large ensemble casts.”
However, late last year, the series did finally at least acknowledge — through salary increases — that both Andrew Lincoln and Daryl Dixon are indispensable to the show. They were able to renegotiate their contracts to receive $550,000 per episode for this seventh season and $650,000 per episode for the eighth season. This puts them in line with the principal cast of Game of Thrones. It also keeps their jobs safe at least through season eight (there will be no riots trigged by Daryl’s death anytime soon).
Presumably, however, the other characters on the show (save for Melissa McBride’s Carol) remain dispensable, so Maggie, Tara, Morgan and Eugene should tread carefully the next time they ask for a raise. Meanwhile, Sonequa Martin-Green — who plays Sasha — is sitting pretty, because she already has another show in the works, one where she is hopefully paid what she the going rate for major television dramas.