James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano helped to make HBO the cultural juggernaut it is today, but the actor and network star were at odds in the lead-up to The Sopranos season 5, leading to the actor suing the company and delaying the release of the season. Gandolfini sued the network for breach of contract, with the goal of negotiating for more money. The lawsuit delayed the filming and release of season 5, but ultimately benefitted the crew of the show and perhaps HBO’s original programming
The Sopranos was a major breakout hit for HBO, whose original shows had previously been overshadowed by the traditional TV networks. When James Gandolfini won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama after The Sopranos season 1, it was a major landmark for both actor and network. As a result, Gandolfini had already renegotiated his contract to double his pay before season 2.
After initially struggling to get the show made, The Sopranos creator David Chase negotiated a $20 million deal to return for season 5. James Gandolfini’s contract required him to be notified of any such change within 10 days, and when this didn’t happen, he launched a lawsuit against HBO. The goal of the suit was to allow Gandolfini to negotiate for more pay, either through a settlement with the network or by voiding his current contract.
At the time, Gandolfini was making $400, 000 per episode of The Sopranos. While this isn’t a small amount of money, it didn’t compare well with the salaries of network TV stars. For example, Frasier earned star Kelsey Grammar $1.6 million per episode, with supporting cast members earning the same episodic rate as Gandolfini did as the lead of The Sopranos – and this was a series that aired 24 half-hour episodes a year. The Sopranos was a massive part of establishing HBO’s subscriber base, and with the Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark recently released on HBO Max, continues to be a major moneymaker for WarnerMedia.
The stand-off between HBO and Gandolfini led to the premiere of The Sopranos season 5 being delayed a few months before when it would normally be expected, with fifteen months passing between the end of season 4 and the season 5 premiere. However, this gap was not unusual for The Sopranos, which was off the air for sixteen months before season 4 and twenty-one before season 6. According to Deadline, Gandolfini was concerned about the impact the delay would have on the show’s below-the-line crew and ensured that they would get back pay for the time missed. He also personally gave each crew member $33, 333, per co-star Steven Schirripa speaking to Vanity Fair.
James Gandolfini’s stand may have strengthened HBO’s success, which allowed it to launch HBO Max after becoming the face of prestige television. Gandolfini’s deal established that HBO could offer deals competitive with not just network TV but also big-budget movies. This helped it to attract big-name actors to later projects like Big Love and True Detective. While Gandolfini’s lawsuit against HBO did delay The Sopranos season 5, it ultimately can be seen as having established a positive precedent for HBO and its actors.