James Gandolfini may give new meaning to the phrase ''putting out a contract.'' Apparently, HBO made the ''Sopranos'' star an offer he could refuse, and he's threatening to walk off the show before production on the fifth season starts on March 24. He's sent the cable channel the legal equivalent of a dead fish -- a breach-of-contract lawsuit urging the court to free him from his obligation to return to work on the grounds that HBO has violated the terms of his deal.
According to Variety, the lawsuit, filed Thursday in California Superior Court, claims that HBO was supposed to notify Gandolfini within 10 days if series creator David Chase got a pay raise. HBO neglected to do so after offering Chase $20 million for Season 5, the suit says. The complaint also says that, should a sixth season be ordered, it will violate the seven-year term limit imposed on entertainers' personal-service contracts in California.
''It's our position that there is no legal obligation for James Gandolfini to perform his services for this season,'' his attorney, Martin Singer, told the New York Daily News. ''HBO did not properly exercise its option for the fifth season.'' However, he said, HBO still has time to make it up to Gandolfini before March 24.
In other words, the actor reportedly wants a raise, from the $400,000 per episode he earns now to nearly double, or $750,000, according to the Daily News. HBO recently gave raises to the show's supporting cast, and Variety reports that the cable channel was in the process of making Gandolfini a better offer as well. ''This is nothing more than a further renegotiation tactic by an actor with a binding contract,'' an HBO spokesperson said of the suit.
Gandolfini's per-episode salary is in line with that of network stars like Jane Leeves and Peri Gilpin of ''Frasier'' and Martin Sheen of ''The West Wing,'' but in the same nine months it takes ''The Sopranos'' to shoot 13 episodes, network series shoot 22, which means those actors earn nearly twice as much per year as Gandolfini.
''Sopranos'' creator Chase has said the upcoming fifth season, set to premiere in January 2004, would likely be the show's last. Maybe this is why.