Jim Parsons Hits the Stratosphere

The star of TV's biggest show talks about The Big Bang Theory, Emmy Awards and Larry Kramer

Honestly, if this keeps up, they’re just going to have to rename the Emmy Award for Lead Actor in a Comedy the Jim Parsons Award. Last week, the 41-year-old won the prize for a fourth time for his role as Sheldon Cooper, main character on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory. It was a busy August for Parsons. Two weeks earlier, he and his cast mates Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting signed a three-year deal with the show for $1 million per episode each, and more than one observer suggested CBS should be happy to pay so little. (Big Bang returns for Season 8 on Sept. 22.)

Jim Parsons was photographed Aug. 27 by Randall Slavin on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles.

Parsons in particular is worth it. The sitcom is the most-watched show on broadcast, averaging a 6.2 rating in the dollar demo (the next-most popular show gets a 4.4). It’s also an incredibly valuable rerun, bringing in $2 million per episode for studio Warner Bros. Domestic TV. In many ways, it’s the swan song of the multicamera, laugh-track comedy era, with Parsons’ Sheldon at its center.

Parsons, an accomplished stage actor, took time between seasons to play Tommy Boatwright in a revival of Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking autobiographical play about the AIDS crisis, The Normal Heart, in 2011, and then again in 2013 to reprise the role for Ryan Murphy’s adaptation for HBO.

Over the phone, Parsons is warm and deferential, discussing his career successes the way you’d talk about finding a $50 bill on the ground. But it’s clear after a moment or two of conversation that he’s also a guy who takes nothing for granted.

Adweek: You started your career on the stage, and you’ve come back to New York to work in The Normal Heart on Broadway in between seasons. Do you miss that part of your career?

Parsons: Yes, without a doubt. Not because I’m currently left wanting for anything, but that will always be home, artistically speaking, and I think that’s true for a lot of actors. It’s such a beautifully brutal training ground. One of the things I’m always reminded of when I’m back on stage is how much you have to be aware of, and in control of. There is no tight shot. There is no “we’re only shoulders-up this time.” No, from the top of your head to your pinky toe, you’re telegraphing part of the story the entire time you’re up there. The theater I got to do informs every move I make as an actor and will for the rest of my life. I can’t shake it if I wanted to, but I don’t want to.

Video directed by Jeremy Goldberg

Has the enormity of the show’s success changed your day-to-day life?

Even after [the show’s popularity grew], it was more of a fact on paper. And in some ways it still is, if I want to be honest about it. Do more people recognize me, or any of us, in the street? Yeah, yeah, yeah. But some of that had started to happen in Season 1. The numbers are just a figure you read, and it’s kind of inconceivable. I don’t know that it will never not be inconceivable because I can’t count that high.

As the show’s gotten bigger, you’ve been adopted by more than one community. Rather than say “Hey, do you want to be a spokesman for, you know, Pepsi and we’ll pay you X?” people say, “You are now the spokesman for Asperger’s.” How do you deal with that?