I find myself profoundly depressed over the death of James Gandolfini at age 51. He was at the center of one of my favorite shows, and one of my most cherished career memories. Back in 2000, I broke a Daily Variety story that Gandolfini had quietly renegotiated a contract for The Sopranos that would pay him $10 million for the next two seasons, including incentives for other projects he would produce and star in for HBO and Brad Grey Television. This was a good one because Gandolfini had just won an Emmy and the show, which debuted in 1999, was already assuming an iconic status that no pay cable series ever had before. HBO didn’t pay well back then, and Gandolfini’s feature quote was already at $5 million. HBO could not afford to lose him. So I’m feeling all good as I get home, and then the phone rings late in the evening at my home in Lindenhurst, Long Island.
“This is Jim Gandolfini, looking for Mike Fleming,” said the voice. When I told him he had the right number, Gandolfini said, “You just printed my salary, and I wanna know who told you.” There was a thrill, but also a jolt, because Gandolfini was so convincing as Tony Soprano. I stammered that journalists do not give up their sources, but that I had a solid one and had done my due diligence by calling HBO, the actor’s reps as well as exec producer Grey. We went back and forth for a while, and he finally said, “Look, I am just a Jersey guy trying to make a living here, and I’m not used to this.” I told him I was a Long Island guy trying to do the same. We laughed and finally he said, “Just tell me this. I need to know if my team told you this, because if they did, I can’t trust them.” Sources are sacrosanct to me, but this was an easy one because his reps had nothing to do with me finding out the information. They wouldn’t even take my call. I told him I could comfortably put my hand on a Bible and say they had nothing to do with how I got the story. He was satisfied. It was a great conversation that rivaled one I had with Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss before that scandal exploded. I couldn’t get her lawyer to call me back, got Heidi’s number and called her to give a heads up that I was writing that people thought no way she would make public her client list. She said that the first publication on her doorstep with $1 million could have her black book.
The Gandolfini conversation was a different kind of thrill. I came away really respecting the blue collar sensibility that made Gandolfini such a unique and yet identifiable presence on that show and in every movie he made. I could tell that he was a bit uncomfortable with fame he never thought he would achieve. Here was a guy who always looked ten years older than his actual age, had hard miles on him and a propensity to gain weight. He relished being a character actor in movies like Get Shorty and True Romance. That was how he saw himself.
Years later, I had a few other Sopranos scoops that brought me into Gandolfini’s orbit. One came when the actor had Marty Singer file a lawsuit in 2003 trying to get the actor out of his Sopranos contract because he wasn’t notified within 10 days that creator David Chase had gotten a $20 million deal for the show’s fifth season, something that was specified in Gandolfini’s contract. It was one salvo in a pay dispute that was getting nasty. I discovered as soon as I broke this that I had struck a nerve because then-HBO chief Chris Albrecht didn’t know about the lawsuit until I called. Talk about a volcanic day. Then, two weeks later, I wrote that Gandolfini had dropped that lawsuit when HBO doubled his $400,000 per episode salary. All in, Gandolfini made about $13 million for the fifth season. He didn’t call me after that story, but you could see his blue collar sensibility playing out by the fact his deal included a stipulation that everybody who worked on the show get paid retroactively for paychecks they missed during the standoff. HBO had shut off the tap to increase its leverage and my sources in the New York production community told me it just killed Gandolfini to be costing blue collar people money, and that this was a prime reason he pushed to get the deal done quickly.
Here’s why these salary squabbles were important. You might say Gandolfini could have been happy making $400,000 an episode, a huge sum in those days for cable. But he was grossly underpaid when compared to network TV. He was being paid the same as supporting players like Jane Leeves and Peri Gilpin earned on Frasier. Ray Romano was getting $800,000 an episode, the Friends cast was getting $1 million an episode each, and Kelsey Grammer was pulling down $1.6 million an episode. HBO was already beginning to make big money selling Sopranos discs, and who knows how many people subscribed to HBO just to be able to see the mob drama? And here Gandolfini was, the indispensable star of the GREATEST DRAMA IN TV HISTORY, having to file lawsuits and scrap to be able to make more than the supporting cast of Frasier.
I would argue two things. Gandolfini’s pay sparring with HBO helped lead to the development of the current financial model that has made cable a haven for great talent. It has allowed pay and basic cable networks to draw the writers and stars who are fueling the current series golden age, with HBO riding that wave with Sopranos follow-ups from Boardwalk Empire to Game Of Thrones. These guys don’t have to take a haircut to work cable and the high quality of these series is making the play-it-safe programming of the big networks look prehistoric.
I would also argue that while I have seen great TV performances — Danny DeVito in Taxi and Ted Knight in Mary Tyler Moore come to mind — when it comes to dramatic series, I have never seen a more complicated and fully realized character than the one Gandolfini played on The Sopranos. To me, that puts him on the short list of the most iconic Jersey products, alongside the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra. I imagine what that must have meant to a blue collar Jersey guy like Gandolfini? Thinking of all that, the idea of a life cut short at 51, of leaving behind a young son and an 8-month old daughter, and all of the anguish his family and friends are experiencing right now, that’s why I am so depressed today.