After seeing Jim Parsons on CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" for 12 seasons, it's almost impossible to imagine him as anyone but Sheldon Cooper. Surely he's a just clone of the obstinate, obsessive, superior, sarcastic, all-around complex character he portrays. But thinking that way gives little credit to the actor, who earned every last bit of the fame and fortune he gained for playing the role. It's hard to believe he almost didn't get it.
When Parsons auditioned for "The Big Bang Theory," the show's creators loved what he did (via WION). But while one was instantly won over, the other didn't think he'd be able to repeat his performance. It was a moment of hesitation that could have gone one way or the other. Thankfully, it led to a "yes" for Parsons and, as hindsight would prove, a television triumph that couldn't have happened without him.
Parsons didn't join the show as a blank slate without experience and professional acting creds. His path started in childhood and led to his superstardom.
Like young Sheldon, as portrayed on his post-"Big Bang Theory" sitcom, Parsons grew up in Texas. His dislike for sports set him apart from other kids, and so did his interest in theatre. But was he also a genius? That would be a "no" from Parsons. "I was not an overly bright child," he told Channel 4. "I was mediocre ... I didn't befuddle my parents."
While he wasn't a professional actor as a child, Parsons wasn't a wallflower either. He always enjoyed performing, from the time he started playing piano as a kindergartener (via Biography). In high school, his drama teacher spotted his talent right away and cast Parsons in school shows (per KHOU). By the time he graduated, his life goals were set. He imagined a future as a meteorologist, and his statement in the yearbook read like a premonition. "You'll see me on television or hear me on the radio doing the news," he promised.
After high school, Parsons studied theatre at the University of Houston. He appeared in 17 plays over the course of three years, with a packed performance schedule that sometimes had him running from one show to rehearsal to another show, all in the same day. "There's no learning like the doing. When you're doing that many different types of things on that many types of stages, you don't know the effect it has while you're doing it," he told the Houston Chronicle. "On one level, it made it hard to throw me."
Parsons got a graduate degree in theatre at the University of San Diego, and from there he moved to New York City, in 2001, aiming to break into the business as a pro. He performed in off-Broadway shows and landed some small on-screen roles, too, including a spot in a 2003 Quiznos commercial.
In the ad, Parsons is innocently eating his lunch when his friend taunts, "Hey, you got that ordinary untoasted sub instead of the toasted Philly cheesesteak from Quiznos? What, were you raised by wolves?"
Parsons stops and appears to reflect on his past. The scene cuts to Parsons, lying in a wooded area. In one version, he's smiling as wolf pups nuzzle and lick his face. In another, he's actually nursing alongside the pups. When the scene cuts back to the present day, he turns to his friend and answers in his trademark deadpan style, "Yes. I was." It wasn't the role of a lifetime, but in some ways, it put Parsons on the map. His work on the commercial is almost ... Sheldon-like.
"It certainly gave me a conversation piece. Half the battle, and I'm not kidding, in certain casting sessions ... is having something interesting to say," he told CBS. "And then if you've suckled at the teat of a Siberian Husky, you have something interesting to say."
Parsons kept auditioning, hoping for his real big break. Each season he tried for roles on 15 to 30 pilots, per the Houston Chronicle (via the Wayback Machine). He appeared in the 2004 Zach Braff film "Garden State." And he lost out on some roles, too. CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" chose Neil Patrick Harris as Barney over him – but he wasn't upset about it.
"I felt I was very wrong for it, and almost ran screaming from the room after I auditioned," Parsons said on "The Late Late Show with James Corden," according to Showbiz Cheatsheet. "Like, 'Well I did that and I don't know why.' They actually made me come back as if they were interested."
Parsons landed a recurring role that was a better fit when he joined the CBS series "Judging Amy" in 2004. As Rob Holbrook, he played a young and hungry clerk for Amy Madison Gray (Amy Brenneman), appearing in seven episodes. And from there, he went almost directly to "The Big Bang Theory" in the role he's best known for to date.