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As ‘The Big Bang Theory’ ends, stars recall how the characters grew (and didn’t)

The top-rated comedy’s creator says 12 seasons of maturing expanded “what the characters were capable of doing.”

Jim Parsons (from left), Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki of “The Big Bang Theory.” | CBS

The long-running success of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” might be explained as the Sitcom Theory of Evolution: survival of the ever-so-gradually maturing.

“The characters grew. It expanded the relationships and what the characters were capable of doing,” co-creator Chuck Lorre says of the top-rated comedy, which airs its hourlong finale at 7 p.m. on WBBM-Channel 2.

A quartet of socially awkward scientist buddies — Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj — and their ingenue neighbor, Penny, embraced adulthood in their own ways and, joined by Amy and Bernadette, found new friendships, marriages and careers over 12 seasons and 279 episodes.

“When the show began, Sheldon couldn’t touch people,” but now he’s married, Lorre says of Jim Parsons’ intellectually transcendent and socially obtuse physicist. Simon Helberg’s Howard “was this obnoxious, delusional playboy,” but “he ends up as a devoted husband and father.”

The lead actors offer their thoughts on how their alter egos have evolved:

Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter)

Leonard, another brilliant physicist, went from a shy, insecure young man who pined for Penny, the unattainable girl next door, to a (somewhat) more confident suitor who married her.

“I read over some of my initial notes about Leonard when we were doing the pilot and how much I thought the character was focused not just on Penny’s looks and charm but on her being the portal for him to experience life in a way he was too afraid to at the time,” said Galecki, who grew up in Oak Park. “She completely brought him out of his shell.”

Kaley Cuoco (Penny Hofstadter)

Penny began as a struggling young actress, socially savvier than her neighbors but without their book smarts. She grew as a person, building a solid career as a pharmaceutical sales rep and bonding with people who seem so different on the surface.

“Penny was the weird one in the group. She was more excluded than the other way around, [but] she definitely earned her spot with those guys,” Cuoco says. ”She earned the right to roll her eyes and give them a hard time.”

At the start, “Penny was a 21-year-old moving into her first apartment, and now she’s married and has a career. Her life has changed tremendously. But she still loves wine. That’s what stayed the same.” (Jokes Galecki, “It’s a better echelon of wine” now.)

Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper)

Quirky Sheldon made the biggest strides in finding his humanity — with the help of his friends and scientist wife, Amy — because he had the furthest to go. It didn’t hurt professionally, either, as he and Amy are candidates for a Nobel Prize.

But Parsons revels in the ways his character hasn’t changed.

“My very favorite thing about Sheldon is him not getting it, not understanding when certain things are said,” he says. “I’m cleaning out my dressing room, as we all are, and I found these pieces of paper from a [Season 3] episode where I have taken Penny to the emergency room. And I remember the scene vividly, reading, ‘When was your last menstrual cycle?’ And her just glaring at me. I’ll say one inappropriate thing after another. … We’ve gotten a lot of gold from that mine of just not getting it.”

Read more at usatoday.com.