The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini almost starred on The Office after Steve Carell left, but HBO paid him $3 million to turn down the role. It’s been almost fifteen years since The Sopranos went off the air, but the iconic gangster show’s legacy only seems to be growing.
Thanks to streaming a whole new generation has discovered The Sopranos and its cast of unforgettable characters, headed up by angst-ridden New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano, as played by Emmy-winner Gandolfini. In fact, Sopranos creator David Chase is taking advantage of the show’s enduring popularity by making a prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, which focuses on the early days of Tony Soprano (played now by Gandolfini’s son Michael Gandolfini). It will surely be fascinating to see Tony at an earlier stage in life, but nothing can compare to the character as presented on the original show with Gandolfini giving one of the great performances in TV history as the sociopathic gangster with the irrational love of ducks.
It’s certainly true that Gandolfini, who passed away in 2013, is primarily remembered for playing Tony Soprano. But history could have been different if Gandolfini’s co-star Michael Imperioli is to be believed. Speaking with The Office UK creator Ricky Gervais on “Talking Sopranos,” the podcast Imperioli co-hosts with Steve Schirripa, the Christopher Moltisanti actor told a story about the time HBO paid Gandolfini to turn down a role that would have made him a sitcom star years after The Sopranos went off the air. The American version of The Office was seeking a replacement for Steve Carell after he left following season 7, and according to Imperioli they offered the role to Gandolfini. But then HBO stepped in. Imperioli said (via ET Canada):
“I think before James Spader and after [Steve] Carell, they offered Jim, I want to say $4 million to play him for the season — and HBO paid him $3 million not to do it. That’s a fact.”
Schirripa then added that Gandolfini was going to take the Office role before HBO made their offer, as he hadn’t worked for quite awhile by 2011. The Bobby Bacala actor also pointed out that Gandolfini had a deal with HBO at the time and was developing the series The Night Of, which wouldn’t make it to screens until 2016, three years after Gandolfini passed. And HBO’s reasoning for paying Gandolfini to stay away from The Office? “So they paid him that to keep the legacy of The Sopranos pure?” guest Gervais surmised, adding “Well, that’s a good decision.”
It may have been a good decision for HBO to pay $3 million to keep Gandolfini from possibly tainting his gangster legacy by playing the Regional Manager of the Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch, but the move also robbed Gandolfini’s fans of the potentially amazing sight of him doing comedy on The Office. Gandolfini of course proved his tremendous comedy chops right on The Sopranos, a show that frankly packs more humorous punch than many sitcoms, so he would’ve been right at home in the Office environment. Ultimately, Gandolfini’s legacy is big enough thanks to The Sopranos, one of TV history’s truly immortal shows. But it would’ve been an amazing triumph for him to follow that up by doing a straight network sitcom like The Office, and indeed had he pulled off the role, it would’ve only reinforced his status as one of the great TV actors. HBO’s gain was indeed the world’s loss.