Ellen DeGeneres — current controversy aside — is generally known as a media success story and a barrier-busting darling who was one of the first openly gay leading women on television. After getting her start in stand-up comedy, the actor found a real calling as a talk show host and has been heading up the long-running and popular The Ellen DeGeneres Show for years.
It would be hard to call any of the choices she made leading up to this thriving career a “mistake,” but she did make one choice early on that has to leave her wondering what if — at least every now and then. Back in the early 1990s, DeGeneres turned down a role that almost certainly would have changed her entire life — and probably made her hundreds of millions of dollars.
Ellen DeGeneres is known as a trailblazer
DeGeneres spent much of her childhood in her home state of Louisiana. She was raised as a Christian Scientist, and when her parents divorced, she relocated to Texas as a teen.
She attended a single semester at the University of New Orleans and majored in communication studies, but she decided to take some time off and ended up in a series of retail and waitstaff jobs. She found her love of comedy through performing stand-up in coffee houses, and she started to pursue the career more seriously by the 1980s.
People began to compare DeGeneres to comedians like Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball, and her reputation helped land her on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1986. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was in several television roles, and she landed a starring part on These Friends of Mine in 1994.
After one season, the show changed its name simply to Ellen, a testament to how much DeGeneres’ personality resonated with fans. It was on this show that DeGeneres famously played a character who declared she was a lesbian. In 1997, both the character Ellen and the real-life DeGeneres’ came out, making her the first primetime sitcom lead who was openly gay.
Ellen DeGeneres had several acting roles
These days, DeGeneres is mostly known for portraying herself on her talk show, and even though her character on Ellen was fictional, her real-life persona was clearly part of the appeal. Along the way, though, DeGeneres had more traditional parts in both television and film. Her TV work includes Open House and Laurie Hill. She did film work in Coneheads and Mr. Wrong.
Perhaps the best-known film work that the comedian has done was in animated form. She lent her voice to the role of Dory, the absent-minded but lovable fish in Finding Nemo. The character was so popular that DeGeneres got to reprise the role for a starring part in Finding Dory.
There is one shocking part Ellen DeGeneres turned down
Clearly, DeGeneres’ path to fame worked out, but she made a choice early on to turn down a role that might make fans gasp. In the early 1990s, she was offered the chance to play Phoebe on Friends. Of course, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the now-iconic role other than Lisa Kudrow, the actor who would eventually take the part and play Phoebe for an astoundingly successful ten seasons.
There’s no way to know if DeGeneres’ presence on the show would have positively or negatively impacted its reception, but it is clear that DeGeneres’ decision may have cost her big time. Since Friends had such a popular and long run — and continues to enjoy success in streaming and syndication — the actors involved all made quite a bit of money. In fact, Kudrow and her co-stars became some of the highest-paid television stars of all-time, raking in over $1 million per episode in the final two seasons. On top of that, their success has continued with royalties from the series earning each one up to $20 million per year.