James Gandolfini and HBO Sued Each Other Over ‘The Sopranos’

The Big Picture

  • James Gandolfini threatened to leave The Sopranos between its fourth and fifth seasons, leading to a legal battle with HBO.
  • HBO neglected to inform Gandolfini of creator David Chase’s new contract, resulting in the actor leveraging the situation to negotiate a better contract.
  • The negotiations and lawsuits resulted in delays in the production of the fifth season of The Sopranos and cost HBO millions in damages.


The pilot episode of HBO’s The Sopranos was shot back in 1997, with the first season of David Chase‘s mobster series marking its 25th anniversary with the series premiere in 1999. The show followed Tony (James Gandolfini), who takes on the role of a New Jersey mob boss while also struggling to manage his home life and mental health. The series came to a close in 2007, and whatever you thought of The Sopranos‘ abrupt ending, its six seasons are considered among the best TV has ever had to offer. That’s why it might come as a shock to many that, midway through the series, the Tony Soprano story almost had an even more abrupt ending.

In 2003, lead actor James Gandolfini threatened to leave the show between its fourth and fifth seasons, even suing HBO in the process. HBO also filed a countersuit, meaning the actor whose performance put the network on the map and the network that made the actor a household name were both respectively biting the hand that fed them. Needless to say, things settled for the better, and the partnership between Gandolfini and HBO continued for two more thrilling seasons, but the reasons behind these mob-like political moves all boil down to one thing. As Tony himself once said, “Sh*t runs downhill, money goes up.”

the sopranos

The Sopranos

New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life that affect his mental state, leading him to seek professional psychiatric counseling.

Release Date
January 10, 1999

Creator
David Chase

Main Genre
Drama

Genres
Drama

Rating
TV-MA

Seasons
6

Studio
HBO


HBO Neglected to Inform Gandolfini of David Chase’s New Deal

2003 marked the hiatus between The Sopranos‘ fourth and fifth seasons, a notorious period of any series’ run in which the talent’s original contracts expire and their worth can be renegotiated. As Neil Patrick Harris explained to Howard Stern, “That’s weird, nasty negotiation times when, all of a sudden, it’s season four-to-five, and […] now we’re in syndication, so everyone starts asking for more money.” With The Sopranos being HBO’s runaway success, they ensured that creator David Chase had his deal sweetened to the tune of $20 million per season.

But the trouble began when the network neglected to inform Gandolfini of this change within 10 days; something apparently stipulated in Gandolfini’s own contract with HBO. According to Variety, the actor and his team leveraged the incident, stating that as a result, “there is no obligation for James Gandolfini to perform services for the coming season.” It’s clear now that this was just Gandolfini and his team’s way of negotiating a better deal for the actor in the upcoming seasons, but things quickly got out of hand and the threat began to cost the company millions.

Throughout The Sopranos‘ first four seasons, James Gandolfini was being paid $400,000 an episode for portraying Tony Soprano. $5.2 million per season may sound like more than enough to the layperson, but for reference, Frasier‘s Jane Leeves and Peri Gilpin were being paid similarly per episode for seasons with nearly twice as many episodes. The West Wing‘s Martin Sheen was in that camp as well, earning double Gandolfini’s annual salary. Lead actors like Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Ray Romano were being paid double that salary at $800,000 an episode for 22-episode seasons. Famously, the cast of Friends earned $1 million each per episode, and Kelsey Grammer was getting $1.6 million per episode — that’s over $35 million a year!

HBO’s official word was that they were already in the process of “sweetening” Gandolfini’s deal when Gandolfini began threatening to leave the show, leading an HBO spokesperson to reassure fans of the series that “this is nothing more than a further renegotiation tactic by an actor with a binding contract,” but Gandolfini’s attorney rebutted. “HBO is considered to be the most profitable network,” argued Martin Singer. “We know that a lot of people in television are paid a lot more than James Gandolfini. […] There have been negotiations going on for our client to potentially return. They haven’t reached an agreement and we have until March 24 to evaluate what to do. That is the day they’ve requested for him to come back to work.”

James Gandolfini’s Threats Cost HBO $100 Million in Damages

Jason Cerbone and James Gandolfini holding a gun in The Sopranos
Image via HBO

The Sopranos‘ seasons ran for only 13 episodes each and took nine months to shoot, making it a similar time commitment as a 22-show network series, so Gandolfini’s team was fighting for pay that matched the work, not the number of episodes. James Gandolfini was reportedly asking for $20 million per season, nearly four times his original salary, yet still only a fraction of Frasier star Kelsey Grammer’s wage at NBC. According to Next TV’s Multichannel News, negotiations led to Gandolfini bringing his offer down to $16 million a year, which HBO still declined to pay. What began as a dirty negotiating tactic only made matters worse for everyone involved.

The process took longer than planned, with the countdown to the Season 5 production dates quickly approaching, so ultimately, Gandolfini sued HBO. This led to the postponement of Season 5’s production. The March start date for the Season 5 production was pushed back to April, costing the network millions in delays. This angered executives at HBO, and the network countersued for the delayed production, demanding Gandolfini pay $100 million in damages. Needless to say, the relationship between HBO and its star was seemingly getting worse, and the likelihood of their creative partnership ending forever was increasing. Thankfully for The Sopranos fans, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

Eventually, the game of chicken came to an end when Gandolfini settled for $11 million, $9 million a year less than he had originally asked for, and just over double his original salary. Both cases were subsequently thrown out with HBO limiting their comments on the issue to the following from CEO Chris Albrecht: “We are delighted that the great Jim Gandolfini will be back at work in the role he has created with such distinction.” Gandolfini returned to work and continued to grace our screens for two more seasons of the hit show, cementing its place as one of the greatest TV shows ever made.

The Sopranos is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

WATCH ON MAX

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