The Big Bang Theory almost featured Marisa Tomei in a major role. Claiming the title of longest-running multi-camera sitcom after season 12 wrapped in May 2019, the hit series debuted in 2007. Created by Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre, it initially featured five main characters: Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Raj (Kunal Nayyar), Howard (Simon Helberg), and Penny (Kaley Cuoco). A few seasons later, Melissa Rauch joined as Bernadette and Mayim Bialik as Amy. Though the additions strengthened the show and allowed for new dynamics to be explored, Cuoco’s character of Penny remained one of the series’ most essential components.
A fan-favorite character, Penny was first included as an audience surrogate, someone to play off of the group of geeky geniuses in a relatable way. Extroverted and bubbly, Penny managed to wear even Sheldon down over time, sharing a touching connection with him as the series went on. The character was able to create relationships with each person in the social group, allowing for amusing interactions and different sides of the nerdy characters to be explored. Additionally, Penny’s relationship with Leonard was a main facet of the series and created many growth opportunities for both characters.
Though Penny proved essential to the fabric of the show, she wasn’t part of the show’s original plan, according to a new book. The Hollywood Reporter offers a sneak peek of the forthcoming oral history of The Big Bang Theory by Jessica Radloff, titled The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series, which reveals an interesting early direction for the series. Before it evolved to the version that viewers know, a table read and unaired pilot were conducted that featured a character named Katie, a “cynical, down on her luck, and off-putting” neighbor of Sheldon and Leonard’s. Actors considered for the role, which was eventually earned by Jodi Lyn O’Keefe and then by Amanda Walsh, were Tomei, Tara Reid, and Elizabeth Berkley. Check out Parsons’ quote on his audition with Tomei below:
I had the part of Sheldon for a long time before everything was settled. I read with Marisa Tomei. Johnny was cast by then, but he was doing a play in New York. I had come back to read with her. I remember going to the snack room after we were done and telling Ken and Nikki [Valko, casting director], “I’ve never been in someone else’s audition before!” And they said, “Well, she was kind of really auditioning you.” And I went, “Oh, that makes sense.” But oh my gosh what a different world that would have been.
How Tomei’s Casting Would’ve Changed The Big Bang Theory
An Oscar-winning performer, Tomei’s talent and charisma are indisputable. Her recent turn in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man trilogy as Aunt May has continued to cement her prowess as an actor and kept her dedicated fan base alive. However, the character Tomei would have played was ultimately not a good fit for the show. Katie shared some similarities with Penny – she was street-smart rather than book-smart, confident, attractive, down-to-earth, and irreverent. However, her cynical persona didn’t create the right dynamic with Sheldon and Leonard. Tomei would certainly have added a delicious edge to the role, perhaps in a similar vein to her characters in My Cousin Vinny or Crazy, Stupid, Love, but Penny’s sweet disposition was simply a better fit.
Though Penny did veer into more cynical territory later on in the series, the character was generally a charming part to the group’s dynamic. The unaired The Big Bang Theory pilot is interesting to consider, but the changes made were for the best in the end, since Cuoco’s Penny shared excellent chemistry with each member of the group, especially Sheldon. Penny was integral to his story arc on The Big Bang Theory, helping the character learn to compromise and interact with people from all walks of life.