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Performers’ primetime payoff

All it takes is one hit series for thesps to find fame, financial reward

John Spencer, a veteran of stage, film and TV, didn’t realize the power of the small screen until he encountered this sobering statistic: more people will see him in one episode of “The West Wing” than if he performed eight shows a week on Broadway for 40 years.

Yeah, they don’t call it the mass medium for nothing.

But the work isn’t easy. Spencer, who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry on the popular NBC series, says doing “West Wing” is the toughest job he’s ever had as an actor.

“It’s absolutely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says.

But those challenges can pay off. Spencer is part of a show that is the three-time Emmy champ, which means his visibility has gone through the roof.

“In terms of recognition, there’s a great advantage in television,” Spencer explains. “Walking down the street and being recognized has translated into business terms. You become more economically positive in being connected to a project.”

While the really big money may still end up in the pockets of the Tom Cruises and Jim Carreys — actors who do feature films exclusively at this point in their careers and are huge box office attractions — television has come a long way as far as actors being compensated.

“Everybody Loves Raymond” star Ray Romano recently inked a deal that pays him between $1.8 million and $2 million per episode, surpassing Kelsey Grammer of “Frasier,” who’s taking home $1.6 million per episode.

“Does television provide financial freedom?,” asks “Six Feet Under” actress Rachel Griffiths. “There’s no doubt that’s true. When I was much younger I wouldn’t have cared so much about that, but at this stage it’s very nice.”

And it’s not just the stars who are making a comfortable living. Like Spencer, if you can end up as an ensemble player on a hit series that eventually makes it past 100 episodes and into syndication — think “Malcolm in the Middle” and “NYPD Blue” — there’s reason to celebrate.

“I have to say TV has been very good to me,” says Charlotte Ross, a small-screen vet who for the past four years has played Det. Connie McDowell on “NYPD Blue.” “I want to say I’ve been lucky but I’ve worked my ass off.”

Like many TV actors, Ross began with a recurring role in a sudser. She appeared for four seasons on “Days of Our Lives,” calling the experience a great training ground, and then left the show in hopes of landing something more primetime.

“I broke my contract on ‘Days’ because there are actor traps you can fall into when doing soaps,” Ross says.

Ross, who’s guested in series ranging from “Frasier” to “ER,” says TV actors have to constantly reinvent themselves and get their name out there as much as possible.

Two actors who haven’t had many problems landing jobs over the past few decades are Ted Danson and John Ritter. Though they’ve done the occasional feature film, they’re alike in that they’ve had hugely popular, No. 1-ranked shows and then have come back as totally different characters and succeeded again. Not an easy accomplishment by any means.

Danson, of course, played bartender Sam Malone on “Cheers” and then an agitated doc on “Becker.” Ritter was a hit in the ’70s on “Three’s Company” and is now about to enter season No. 2 on ABC’s “8 Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.”

“I just feel like a working actor,” Ritter says. “I’ve never really wished I could be in a hit movie, TV series or Broadway. I just love the idea of the part. ”

While the rigors of series work are extensive — long hours, short time for memorizing scripts — Ritter enjoys the advantages it brings.

“The thing I like best about TV is the immediacy of it,” he says. “It’s out there in a few weeks. It’s also nice because you’re not so much at the mercy of others, like editors. In a sitcom, what you film is basically what you see.”

Examining Ritter’s genes, it’s not surprising he became an actor. His dad, legendary singing cowboy Tex Ritter, appeared in over 70 films and TV series.

But if dad had his way, John never would’ve appeared before the cameras.

“He didn’t want me to be an actor. He didn’t want me to go through what he went through. He said, ‘I went through one can of chili a week. Please go to college,'” says Ritter, laughing.

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