The decision to join forces may have produced harmony on the set, but it certainly didn't add cash to the checkbook; the actors were given the salary of their weakest, not strongest, cast member (thus costing Aniston and Schwimmer whose film careers were looking the most promising at the time some serious dough, says the source). The hikes reportedly were gradual: $75,000 for the third year, $85,000 in year four, $100,000 in year five, and $125,000 in year six.
Interestingly, that 1996 salary squabble produced a different set of cast leaders: ''It all depends on the relative strength of the actor,'' says a source familiar with the contract talks. ''At the last go-around, Courteney, Jennifer, and David were more of the ringleaders because at that point they had much stronger feature careers. Now Lisa [whose movie career has taken off] is in a much stronger position.''
This time, the cast is again sticking together and playing it very cool. In January, Cox Arquette told EW: ''I honestly, honestly don't know the answer [to whether Friends will return]. I'm waiting it out. You have to make sure everyone else wants to go back. If everybody else wanted to do it, and the rest of the picture worked out, I'd be there. But we're a long way from that right now.'' Likewise, last June Schwimmer said to EW: ''I don't care how much money is thrown at me. I need to be excited.'' One source on the show, however, calls the cast's disinterested stance ''a bluff,'' noting the crew is hardly ''sitting at the edge of our seats'' wondering if the show will return.
But on the off chance the talks were to break down, Friendswould go off the air with an anticlimactic whimper. A source says the season finale, airing May 18, features nary a wedding or funeral though Tom Selleck does return, apparently to cause some tension between lovebirds Monica and Chandler. ''It's a strong season ender,'' says someone on the show, though hardly a series stopper. And that's something perfectionist Monica just would not stand for.
(Additional reporting by Robert Schwartz)