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Who will end up taking the hit?

Some predict the feud between HBO and James Gandolfini will be costly to both.

March 17, 2003|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

He was the main character in a hit drama, but felt hurt and stung that he wasn't getting paid what he thought he deserved. After toiling in relative obscurity for most of his career, this new member of the A-list of leading TV performers couldn't believe the entertainment press was calling him greedy and ungrateful.

When he threatened to leave the series if he wasn't paid more, his star was temporarily tarnished by negative publicity, as well as a breach-of-contract lawsuit by his employers, who felt the show wouldn't survive if he left.

The clash may sound like the current legal standoff between HBO and James Gandolfini, the star of the cable network's hit drama "The Sopranos." But this dispute actually took place 11 years ago. The actor was Rob Morrow, and the show was "Northern Exposure," CBS' quirky series about a yuppie New York doctor spending his residency in Cicely, Alaska.

Eventually both sides worked out their differences, Morrow returned to work, and life on the set of "Northern Exposure" continued on almost as if nothing had happened. The series continued until 1995, and Morrow moved on to movies and other TV work, including his current starring role in Showtime's "Street Time." Though he has worked steadily, his career momentum was derailed.

The tug-of-war of Morrow against Universal Television and CBS bears more than a little resemblance to Gandolfini vs. HBO. The actor is suing the cable network to get out of his contract. The network in turn is alleging breach of contract and is suing Gandolfini for $100 million.

Gandolfini was relatively unknown before hitting it big with his Emmy Award-winning portrayal of the head of an organized crime family, just as Morrow was before being cast in "Northern Exposure." And like Morrow, Gandolfini feels he is not reaping enough of the financial benefits of the show's success.

This conflict is more than just another case in TV's David-and-Goliath tradition of star against show, or for that matter, show against star. The stakes are much higher, with both sides at critical junctures in their respective universes.

Gandolfini's clout as a major star whose presence in a project conjures up the words "instant hit" is still in question, although he's been the undisputed star of this series.

And HBO is in danger of losing one of the key assets that has transformed the cable network into television royalty.

Perhaps that's why the dispute has been fought so vigorously, and so publicly, right from the start.

Due to the ongoing dispute, HBO has postponed the March 24 production start date of the fifth season of "The Sopranos," and the supporting cast and crew have no idea when they will return to work. It has been the talk of Hollywood since Gandolfini filed his suit March 7, with some executives at broadcast networks gloating that lofty HBO is finally enduring the downside of owning a cultural phenomenon.

The conflict is the latest in a long history of contract disputes involving TV stars and their series, some successful, while others were not. "Three's Company," "Charlie's Angels," "The Dukes of Hazzard," "MASH" and "The X-Files" are just a few of the series where stars asked for more money.

Several cast members of "The West Wing" banded together in 2001 and negotiated a raise to about $70,000 per show in a deal that keeps them on through the seventh season.

The supporting cast of "Becker" that year skipped work for two days in an apparent contract dispute. Paramount Network Television, producer of the CBS sitcom, filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the performers. The suit was settled, and the actors returned to work.

But even in the volcanic history of salary conflicts in the TV world, industry insiders say that the dispute between HBO and Gandolfini is particularly nasty, and is potentially more damaging to both sides than most conflicts of this nature.

Said one key insider close to the negotiations. "If the network prevails, there is tremendous financial exposure for the actor, and it will affect his career with future employers. If the actor prevails and the series unravels, the network and the studio will get hurt. But HBO is a $10-billion network. They will miss the series, but they'll be OK. But they have no appetite to lose the show.... James is a very gifted actor suffering from misguided representation and advice." "

Unlike the broadcast networks, HBO has a relatively thin slate of original programming. "Sex & the City" will end its run this year, and "Oz," which never had the success of "The Sopranos," just finished its run. "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Six Feet Under" and, to a lesser extent, "The Wire," are popular with critics and viewers, but fall short of the pop-culture juggernaut of "The Sopranos."

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