The Big Bang Theory Had Three Surprising Actresses Vying For Lead Role Over Kaley Cuoco

Marisa Tomei, Elizabeth Berkley, and Tara Reid
(Image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing/MGM/Universal Pictures)

Kaley Cuoco played Penny on The Big Bang Theory for twelve seasons. It’s still hard to believe that the beloved CBS show ended three years ago. Believe it or not, there were actually three surprising actresses vying for the sitcom's lead role before Kaley Cuoco came into the picture. 

It’s hard to imagine what a long-running TV show would be like without a particular actress. The Hollywood Reporter shared a sneak peek of untold stories that are featured in Jessica Radloff’s novel The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series that said Penny was originally very different from what we know her to be now. While her original name was going to be Penny, they decided to change it to Katie, as there was initially a character named Penny in another CBS pilot. And instead of Katie having a Midwestern bubbly personality, she was more down on her luck and off-putting. When 20-year-old Kaley Cuoco first auditioned for The Big Bang Theory, co-creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady were taken with her, but the optimistic energy she brought out wasn’t what they were looking for in Katie, and thought she was too young for the part.

In the very early days, My Cousin Vinny’s Marisa Tomei auditioned with Jim Parsons. Then came American Pie’s Tara Reid and Saved by the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley auditioning for the role that Prady described as "terrific." Canadian actress Amanda Walsh, who was known for the short-lived ABC dramedy Sons & Daughters, also auditioned for Katie. In the end, none of them made the cut the first time around. 

The first actress that they cast for the role of Katie ended up being She’s All That’s Jodi Lyn O’Keefe. During the table read, Parsons thought that O’Keefe nailed what was written. But, the creators felt that the female lead's interaction with the other characters was too harsh and dark. This led to O’Keefe being fired after that table read to the shock of Galecki and Parsons, which meant The Big Bang Theory creators had three days to recast. 

While Amanda Walsh didn't make it for round one, she was brought back again for round two where she was told she got the part after auditioning again. A little behind-the-scenes fact about The Big Bang Theory to share is that the show was originally going to have two female leads - tough Katie and scientist Gilda, who had a secret crush on Leonard and actually had sex with Sheldon at a Star Trek convention. The original Big Bang Theory pilot was considered “just a mess” because the creators were still failing to understand the characters they created. If a woman was going to enter Sheldon and Leonard’s life, it had to be someone who was “gentle” with them because of how vulnerable the male characters were. So, the original first draft of the female lead "Penny" resurfaced, Gilda was scrapped and Kaley Cuoco replaced Walsh.

Marisa Tomei, Elizabeth Berkley, and Tara Reid may not have been the next “Penny,” but their careers took them in a number of different directions that led them to success. Tomei would end up playing Aunt May in the MCU's Spider-Man trilogy, Reid would be in the Sharknado movies that helped change her career, and Berkley came back to the iconic role of Jessie Spano in Peacock's Saved by the Bell reboot, which lasted two seasons. Kaley Cuoco brought out a likable quality in Penny, who evolved over the years from a cute “girl next door” type of woman to someone who never had any problems calling out her awkward scientist friends for their stuff too. 

You can watch episodes of The Big Bang Theory and Kaley Cuoco’s newer show The Flight Attendant with your HBO Max subscription

Carly Levy
Entertainment Writer

Just your average South Floridian cinephile who believes the pen is mightier than the sword.