What a difference a weekend makes. On Friday, March 14, it looked as if Sopranos star James Gandolfini and HBO had managed to do what the FBI, Uncle Junior, and Tony's own mother couldn't -- put the Mob boss on ice. But just three days later, on Monday, March 17, it appeared that Gandolfini had returned to the Family. ''I want to go back to the show,'' he told EW in an exclusive interview shortly after news broke that the star of HBO's biggest hit was withdrawing his breach-of-contract lawsuit against the pay-cable network. ''I have nothing but respect for HBO. I want to work there. I want to go back, and I'm sorry for all this nonsense.''
It certainly didn't seem that way in early March. After weeks of negotiations to raise Gandolfini's $400,000-per-episode fee to a reported $1 million, things took a surprisingly nasty -- and public -- turn when the star filed the suit against HBO. Before anyone could call in Dr. Melfi to talk him down, HBO shot back with a $100 million countersuit and halted production on the Mob drama's fifth season.
With negotiations at a standstill, Hollywood insiders wondered how it had come to this. ''I don't think HBO had any idea that it was going to get this far,'' says HBO counsel Bertram Fields, who had to withdraw from the case due to a conflict of interest. ''They made an offer, Gandolfini [countered], and they said they couldn't go that high. The next thing HBO knew, they were hit with a lawsuit.'' (Gandolfini's camp maintains that after the actor rejected HBO's offer, the cabler canceled a negotiating conference call and just shut down. That's when he sued.)
While renegotiations by TV stars are de rigueur (remember Friends and Frasier), lawsuits like Gandolfini's are not. ''When it gets to this stage, somebody has made a mistake,'' notes entertainment litigator Stanton ''Larry'' Stein, who's not affiliated with either party. HBO puts the blame on Gandolfini. ''You can't be in a position where an actor uses a lawsuit to force you to pay,'' says Fields. ''And so [HBO chairman-CEO] Chris Albrecht did what he thought was in the best interest of his company.''
At least one published report quoted an ''HBO source'' calling Gandolfini a ''greedy pig.'' The actor acknowledges that by staying silent he may have helped stoke a negative PR campaign. ''It was my choice not to respond in any way to any of those accusations,'' says Gandolfini. ''Even though my representatives and publicists urged me to respond, I chose not to. I'm not a professional at these kinds of public relations things.'' Still, Gandolfini isn't pointing fingers. ''There's no one at fault.''
Others blame HBO. ''Since HBO is relatively new to the renegotiation game, they may have dropped the ball,'' speculates one entertainment attorney. Unlike broadcasters like NBC, the cabler doesn't have experience compensating rising stars. ''This show is the biggest thing that's ever happened to HBO,'' says an inside source, ''and sometimes they don't know how to deal with it. This was one of those times.''