James Gandolfini wants a raise, but HBO has yet to make him an offer he can't refuse. The ''Sopranos'' paterfamilias, who is said to make as much as $400,000 an episode, reportedly wants to up his take to about $1 million. Employing the legal equivalent of a gun to the head behind the Bada Bing, Gandolfini sued the cable network last week, arguing that he's no longer ''obligated to furnish acting services.'' In turn, HBO says they had been negotiating more cash for the star -- reportedly between $650,000 and $700,000 -- and find the suit ''shocking and disappointing.'' Either way, the real question for fans is this: Does the capo deserve his loot?
Gandolfini wants to be paid like TV's biggest stars, and by that standard, he's practically a pauper. ''Friends'' cast members each make $1 million per episode; Kelsey Grammer hauls in $1.6 million per half-hour of ''Frasier''; Ray Romano scoops up $800,000 a week for battling his folks on ''Everybody Loves Raymond.''
But there's one key difference between Gandolfini and those stars (body-fat levels aside): The broadcast nets can justify actor salaries because they know exactly how much money their shows make through advertising and syndication. But ad-free HBO thrives on monthly fees from its 27 million subscribers (and hasn't nailed down syndication plans for ''The Sopranos''), making exact profits impossible to calculate. ''An argument that HBO might make against Gandolfini is that they cannot easily quantify the value of 'The Sopranos,''' says TV consultant Bob Carroll.
But common sense seems to deflate that stance. With an average of 11 million viewers per episode, ''The Sopranos'' is HBO's most popular show and its most recognizable brand name. What's more, Tony Soprano's struggles with his two families are at the dead (and oft-bloody) center of every episode, making it impossible to imagine the show without him. In short: He's worth the $750,000.
'''When you start to do the math, I'd be surprised if they came back with an offer that's dramatically less than he's asking,'' says Carroll. ''Gandolfini is a critical part of 'The Sopranos,' and 'The Sopranos' is a critical part of the prestige and success of HBO.'' Sure it is -- now that ''Arliss'' is gone.