2003-03-13 / This Week's Attitude

This Week’s

AttitudeMob Character Could Wind Up Sleepin
By Neil S. Friedman

Mob Character Could Wind Up Sleepin’ Wit Da Fishes

With the nation on the verge of war with Iraq, the battle brewing between HBO and actor James Gandolfini over a measly $200,000 salary dispute is, in the grand scheme of things, small potatoes. Nevertheless, the highly acclaimed dramatic series, seen exclusively on the pay network, has the entertainment media and the show’s loyal audience all aquiver because the fictional mob family’s future may depend on the outcome of the disagreement.

Since its premiere, "The Sopranos" has steadily been HBO’s biggest draw, attracting more than ten million viewers a week, achieving the distinction as the top-rated cable entertainment series. Every year Gandolfini has appropriately received a boost in salary. Last season he earned a not-so-modest $400,000 an episode. For the pending fifth year of "The Sopranos," which is rumored to be its swan song, the actor was offered a 100 percent salary hike. Apparently, it was an offer Gandolfini could, and did, refuse.

He reportedly will not put in an appearance when the series begins production later this month if his demand for one million dollars per episode is not met. That salary level would equal the exceptional ranks of such sitcom stars as Kelsey Grammar, Ray Romano and Ted Danson before them.

HBO is the number one subscriber-based service. However, it doesn’t sell advertising spots to pay for its programming. Revenues are mostly derived from viewers who order and pay for the service through their local cable or satellite companies.

Unlike many television series, "The Sopranos" is unlikely to enjoy a post-HBO life in syndication, which adds tens of millions to producers’ pockets. Tony and friends would have to be glaringly censored, something the producers might not accept, for rough language and wanton violence if it were ever to appear on network television, which is probably why the major networks rejected the series before it was offered to HBO.

There’s no way "The Sopranos" will ever become a staple on the USA Network, which offers renewed life to some network dramatic series, or on Nick at Nite ten years from now.

Before landing the plum role of Tony Soprano, the head of a fictional New Jersey crime family and a four-person household, James Gandolfini’s acting career was not exactly taking off. He was commonly cast in strong, yet secondary villainous roles, appearing with dynamic stars whose talents clearly surpassed his caliber. Nonetheless, with the character of the don, he was cast in a coveted role, perfectly suited to his ability. And he has performed magnificently. But his ability seems limited and casting directors aren’t likely to seek him out for quality starring roles in the near future.

Other actors who made their marks via popular television roles only to walk away when they believed their careers were ripe for silver screen stardom, include David Caruso on "NYPD Blue," and, more recently, Rob Lowe on "West Wing."

If he refuses to compromise, Gandolfini could figuratively be shooting himself in the foot, which is surely a less violent exit than writers would be forced to script for his character if "The Sopranos" were to continue without him.

There’s no disputing that "The Sopranos" is a well-written, well-acted, brilliantly produced piece of entertainment that is served well by its star. But Gandolfini’s demand is appalling, especially since he’d be just another recognizable, albeit relatively unknown, Hollywood character actor.

Take the $800,000 Gandolfini or Tony Soprano might end up like another "Sopranos" character — sleepin’ wit da fishes.

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