"Nobody got any money" during the first four seasons of The Walking Dead, says former series star Michael Rooker, who recently alleged Merle was killed off in the third season of the zombie drama because network AMC was "very cheap" and didn't want to increase his pay for a future season. Merle Dixon appeared in two episodes of the six-episode first season under Frank Darabont, returning only once in the second season when wounded younger brother Daryl (Norman Reedus) hallucinated the then-missing Merle. Rooker would later return, appearing in most episodes throughout Season 3 until Merle was shot and killed by villain the Governor (David Morrissey) in "This Sorrowful Life," the penultimate episode of the season.
"Were they cheap? Of course they were cheap," Rooker said on Inside of You with Michael Rosenbaum when asked about comments the actor made during a convention appearance earlier this year. "Come on, give me a break! Are you serious? Nobody got any money those first three, four seasons. And we killed it, dude. We worked our asses off and we made that series. But nobody got any money."
The stars of the earlier seasons, which included Darabont favorites Melissa McBride, Laurie Holden, and Jeffrey DeMunn, were paid "really basic salaries."
"But of course, you know, the show becomes popular and they started paying people after that. But I don't blame them, I'd do the same thing," Rooker said. "Why would I want to pay top dollar on a show that's not proven? If I could get really good actors to do this for less money, go for it. That's my producer brain thinking."
Darabont famously had a falling out with the network over second season budget cuts that reduced the show's budget by 25 percent. A network source said at the time the $2.75 million-per-episode better represented "a more typical and sustainable number for a basic cable show," despite The Walking Dead pulling in better ratings than prestige programming Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which weren't owned by AMC.
It wasn't until the Season 3 midseason finale that The Walking Dead became the first cable series in television history to top every show of the Fall broadcast season in the coveted adult 18-49 rating.
Asked if the Walking Dead stars deserved pay more reflective of the series' blockbuster success at the time, Rooker said, "Of course you do, and they do. They get more money now. But not the beginning ones, not the new guys."
"But the older [stars], Norman and all those guys get plenty of money. And they deserve it," he added. "Dude, everybody gets hurt on that show. We're running through woods, jumping over logs, dodging rattlesnakes, I mean, come on. Everything."
The Walking Dead next airs the Season 10 finale, "A Certain Doom," as a special episode later this year. For all things TWD, follow the author @CameronBonomolo on Twitter.