Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.

The salary showdown with voice actors last October on The Simpsons was “less of a close call than people thought” as a threat to the Fox show’s future, according to exec producer and showrunner Al Jean. Speaking to reporters on a conference call promoting the series’ landmark 500th episode that airs this Sunday night, Jean said the tense contract renegotiations were “really all about the network insisting that the cost of the show had become prohibitive. Basically, they said that as long as we could get down to a certain number, they’d like to see the show go as long as it can. And we did. The cast [salaries] were part of that budget. But we never really got close to that point” of seriously considering pulling the plug. Unlike the way it was characterized in the press, Jean said “this was never a holdout or a walkout, merely a renegotiation. It’s just the way business works.” Had any members of the cast actually followed through and left the series, Jean stressed that no other actors would have been recruited to replace them. “We would simply have stopped the show,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to do the show without the people we have now.”

Regarding how long The Simpsons can conceivably continue, Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly said during TCA in January that the show has “3 1/2 more seasons in the can.” Jean noted today that everyone is signed for 559 episodes in the latest deal. “But do I know where the show ends? Absolutely not,” he said. “I’ve jokingly said why not do 1,000 episodes, or 2,000. It sounds as preposterous as 500 did at the beginning.” Jean also was asked how the show managed to land notorious WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a guest voice for the 500th episode. Evidently, Assange himself had expressed interest to producers in being on the show. And the show jumped at the chance. “It’s a funny cameo,” Jean says, “and it makes no judgement with any of the larger issues” surrounding Assange. The cameo was recorded via telephone in what Jean described as a “very cloak-and-dagger kind of thing. It was a very brief phone call, mostly involving me talking to an engineer talking to him. There was really very little interaction. [Assange] was in a different country. I have no idea which one. But it was great to have him. I don’t think he was on the 500th episode of Gunsmoke.”

Asked whether he had a dream guest star that The Simpsons has yet to land, Jean said it would be Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax.