She landed a role in a 1992 TV film starring Donald Sutherland. She played Maureen McCormick in the 2000 TV film "Growing Up Brady." Along the way, she landed jobs in lots of episodic shows.
But by 2002, she was feeling discouraged. She hadn't worked in a year.
Then her agent phoned about a project called "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter." Reluctantly she auditioned for the part of the older daughter in a household whose loving but bewildered dad would be played by John Ritter. Cuoco got the role.
Though it built into a hit for ABC its first season, "8 Simple Rules" is remembered mainly as the final project of the beloved Ritter, who died abruptly early in its second year. The show pushed on through a third season, but it never overcame Ritter's tragic absence.
"I just adored him," says Cuoco, unleashing a stream of memories of how he used to cut up on the set and how much she learned from him.
"He'd put a potato chip on his shoulder and go, 'Do I have a chip on my shoulder?' And we would just crack up! He would do it every day!
"Working with him showed me that I loved sitcoms," she goes on. "I'm a 'Bridesmaids' type of girl. I love silliness. That's who I am at heart, and I know I can do it. If my career path takes me elsewhere, that's great. But comedy is my forte."
"Big Bang" co-creator Chuck Lorre, who snagged Cuoco for the show, agrees.
"Kaley was born to the form," he says in a separate interview. "There's an instinctive thing with comedy that some people have — an elegance and gracefulness, where no effort is apparent."
But there's effort for Cuoco, and on the job it pushes her to question everything.
"How could it not?" she says with a laugh. "I wonder, 'Why did I do that line that way?' And I also constantly think I'm fat and hate my teeth. But I've gotten better over the years. I've started to accept." She smiles, revealing nothing remotely wrong with those teeth. "It's going to be fine."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier