On the night of April 14, inside a secure Burbank soundstage, the cast of Friends will tape their season finale. Monica will act neurotic, Joey will say something dumb, Phoebe will say something really dumb, and that'll be it. Forever. Friends no more.
Okay, we admit it: That's an extreme worst-case scenario but it is possible. As the sixth season draws to a close, NBC's six comely sitcom stars still haven't renewed their about-to-expire contracts. The problem: They want a raise. A big one. This season, each actor earned $125,000 per episode. For next fall, insiders report, they're pushing for as much as $800,000 per show, plus back pay for this season's 24 shows.
Just as shockingly, some sources say the mastermind behind the Friends' hardball tactics is none other than the strikingly unditsy Lisa Kudrow. ''She's the group leader,'' says an agent familiar with the negotiations. ''They all rely on her a lot.'' Some of the cast specifically the three guys (Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer, and Matthew Perry) wanted to renegotiate last May, a year before their four-year contract expired, says a source on the show. The gals (Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, and Courteney Cox Arquette) preferred to stall. ''Lisa thought that by waiting till the 11th hour, the network would be panicked, and it would help them get leverage,'' says another agent.
The waiting game will likely pay off. Though Friends' ratings have dipped (the show averages 20.8 million viewers, down 13 percent from last season), it's still TV's No. 1 sitcom and NBC's Thursday-night anchor. ''We want Friends to come back and are hopeful it will happen...it would be a true shame if this can't be resolved,'' says an NBC spokeswoman. And no doubt the network wants to seal a deal before May 15, when it announces its fall schedule to advertisers.
Still, NBC probably would share the cost of a mammoth salary bump which could amount to as much as $97 million next year with Warner Bros. Television, Friends' production company. Considering the show's reruns are expected to generate nearly $1 billion for Warner in their first five years, the cast's demands aren't as outrageous as they may seem. After all, even Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt snagged $1 million per episode in 1998 for NBC's infinitely weaker Mad About You. Says one (admittedly actor-friendly) agent: ''They haven't been treated fairly up to this point. They are so underpaid it's ridiculous.'' (Warner declined to comment.) And before you feel too sorry for the poor kids consider that each actor owns about a half percentage point of the show's syndication fees, which could come to a not-so-shabby $5 million apiece.
The Friends negotiated that little back-end bonus after their first high-profile contract negotiations. In 1996, the sexy sextet declared their now infamous ''all for one, one for all'' status at the bargaining table despite a willingness by Warner to cut separate deals with each actor, says one insider familiar with the talks.