According to TV Guide’s survey of the top earners in TV, Charlie Sheen is the highest-paid actor. The TV Guide figures may mislead us about what people actually get paid per episode, though, since they don’t distinguish the per-episode salaries as actors from the money they take in from owning a piece of the show. So the lists tend to be topped by folks like Sheen, Kyra Sedgwick, and the soon-to-depart William Petersen, who have an ownership stake in their shows. Not to mention Simon Cowell, whose ownership of the American Idol format takes in much more than whatever he gets paid for sitting there and insulting people.
Still, you can see that any such list is dominated by people who dominate the shows they’re on. That’s not to say that the show can’t go on without them; otherwise CSI would be over. It’s that these shows are dominated by one or two characters, who get paid in accordance with their importance. Sheen, the Hargitay/Meloni duo from SVU, Kiefer Sutherland, Kyra Sedgwick: their shows aren’t ensemble shows, or shows like Lost without a clear star. They are in the older tradition of building a show around one or two people and having everyone clearly be a supporting player.
Interestingly, it seems like star-vehicle shows tend to skew older; all the stars I’ve just mentioned are on older-skewing shows. Shows for younger viewers tend to be more fragmented and less dominated by a single personality; even when the heroine’s name is in the title, like Buffy or Veronica Mars, the shows tend to be a bit more ensemble-ish.
The full list won’t be published until tomorrow, so I don’t know where Hugh Laurie or Tony Shalhoub fit into all this.