Gandolfini Wants a Sopranos Offer He Can't Refuse

With all the hits Tony Soprano has ordered on HBO's mob drama The Sopranos, it never seemed plausible Tony might get whacked himself. But that could be what ends the reign of the television mob boss after all. With actor James Gandolfini, who plays Soprano, and HBO squabbling over Gandolfini's pay, the show's future is in jeopardy. If not sleeping with the fishes, The Sopranos
is at least on hiatus.

Last week, HBO notified The Sopranos
cast and crew of about 300 that production would not begin as planned March 24. Gandolfini, who currently makes between $300,000 and $400,000 per episode, is seeking a hefty pay raise. He initiated the legal sparring two weeks ago by filing suit against HBO in California, claiming the network had violated his contract.

HBO fired back with a $100 million countersuit, alleging that it will "suffer substantial monetary loss" if production on the series' fifth season has to be scrapped. HBO could lose subscribers who pay up only to see the acclaimed drama.

HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht said recently, "To have [Gandolfini] now act in a manner so disruptive to the show and the lives of the people involved is shocking and disappointing,"

HBO has offered to up Gandolfini's salary—nearly double, according to some sources—even though the actor has two years remaining on his contract. He reportedly wants more like $1 million per episode, on par with what the cast of Friends
gets per episode.

The Sopranos
is a different type of production than the broadcast model. Instead of 22 or 24 episodes, HBO makes just 13. But the episodes are nearly a full hour, compared with just under 43 minutes on network dramas.

"We offered [Gandolfini] a very substantial increase over what he is currently earning," Albrecht said, "without any contractual obligation and without receiving anything in return."

Gandolfini's suit alleges HBO failed to notify him, as required by his contract, that it had reached a deal with series creator David Chase for a fifth season. He also asserts that his HBO deal will exceed California's seven-year personal-service requirements.

But HBO claims New York law, not California statutes, should govern because the show, the companies involved and Gandolfini are all New York-based.

Even before the lawsuits, the hit series has had erratic moments. Last fall's fourth season debuted after a 16 month hiatus. (HBO has always maintained that Sopranos
was ready for air last summer but was held until the fall so Sex & The City
could headline the summer slate.)

But HBO has never given a premiere date, or even month, for season five. Now it's unlikely the show could return before 2004 even if the Gandolfini dispute is resolved quickly. The Sopranos
generally takes 13 months between premieres for production.

The possibility of a sixth season—even provided Gandolfini comes back to work—is even more uncertain. HBO made a "generous offer" to Chase, but he hasn't decided whether he'll keep working on the show. The actors—even Gandolfini—are signed for six seasons.