Who will end up taking the hit?

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."

Said a former major network executive, "There'll be a lot of saber rattling, but both sides must absolutely resolve this. James does not have an ownership position on the show, he's not participating in DVD sales, and he's not a monstrously rich man, so this is important to him to maximize this moment. Who knows when he will have another hit series?

"On the other hand, 'The Sopranos' is an absolutely 'must have' for HBO ... a critical show."

Sources say Gandolfini has been making $300,000 an episode for "The Sopranos." HBO offered to more than double his salary to $650,000 per episode, but his representatives countered with a demand for $2 million. (By comparison, Martin Sheen earns $300,000 per episode of "The West Wing," and Anthony Edwards was making about $425,000 per episode at the time he left "ER" last season; both of those network shows shoot almost twice as many episodes per season as the 13 of "The Sopranos.")

Though figurative lines in the sand have been drawn, the popular speculative consensus among many insiders is that Gandolfini and HBO need each other too much to allow "The Sopranos" to collapse, and that it won't be long before reunion toasts are being held on the set of the resumed production.

"They will all kiss and make up," said a major television agent. "James and [HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht] won't be vacationing together in the Hamptons any time soon, but there'll be nice bottles of champagne for everyone."

But there is disagreement among several agents, managers, producers, and executives about the actor's future and how the clash will affect his reputation in Hollywood.

Dick Wolf, creator of NBC's "Law & Order" franchise, said Gandolfini may well have a thriving film career ahead of him, but that his television career post-"Sopranos" may be over.

"This is really a watershed moment in television," said Wolf, calling Gandolfini's lawsuit "a dangerous precedent. As far as I understand, he has a legal contract to work on this series. If I were involved, I would try to make that as apparent as possible with legal action or by any means necessary. I cannot conceive of a major corporation where they would let the lead of their No. 1 show fall into a contractual loophole. It defies logic."

Wolf is a seasoned veteran of contract disputes. One erupted in 1990 when five members of the cast of his short-lived NBC series, "Nasty Boys," threatened not to show up for work.

Wolf wrote an opening scene for a script that read, "Exterior: cemetery. Four 'Nasty Boys' surround an open grave." The actors quickly returned to work.

Gavin Polone, a former agent who has become one of entertainment's busiest producers of films such as "Panic Room" and series such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Hack," said that while he's unfamiliar with the details of the case, "I have to praise Chris Albrecht for not giving in to extortion. It's highly commendable. I like to see strong leadership.... It's like in school when a bully comes after your lunch money. If you give it to them, another bully will be along tomorrow.

"This only hurts James in the fact that he's not moving forward. Who all of this really hurts are the people on the show who now are not working."

So far, none of Gandolfini's colleagues on the series have been heard from publicly, although one of his representatives said several have called him to express support. One insider said, "I know that directors and other crew people were all sitting around in Queens last week, and it was all chaos. They're all waiting to work."

But a prominent agent said, "This won't hurt James at all. When a network has a benchmark show like 'The Sopranos,' he absolutely has the right to go back and renegotiate his contract. They're making millions and millions off this show. He'll probably never do another series, but he's a movie star."

Others are more skeptical of his box-office appeal. "The Last Castle," (2001), in which he shared top billing with Robert Redford, made little more than $18 million, while two other films in which he had featured roles, "The Mexican" and "The Man Who Wasn't There," were not hits.

The agent added that Gandolfini may want to think twice about the exposure a court battle could bring to his finances and personal life. "It would really cost him a lot of money, and it's a smart, aggressive move by HBO to put him in this position. He doesn't want to pay that money, or deal with all that publicity."

Whatever the outcome, one former broadcast network head said the conflict represents a coming-of-age for the cable network. Said the executive: "The other networks are tickled and delighted that HBO is now suffering the problems of success that the others have been living with for years. There's a lot of smirking and cheering going on in those hallways. They have been fortunate enough not to have to deal with ratings, and they have this monstrous advertising budget. Now they have the pain of success."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Winners and losers on the set

Star: Rob Lowe

Show: "The West Wing"

Year: 2002

What he wanted: A raise from $75,000 a week, and a bigger role

What he got: A "see ya later " from NBC and series creator Aaron Sorkin

*

Star: Jane Kaczmarek

Show: "Malcolm in the Middle"

Year: 2002

What she wanted: More money

What she got: A reported weekly raise to $100,000, bumped to $150,000 next season.

*

Stars: Terry Farrell, Alex Desert, Shawnee Smith, Saverio Guerra and Hattie Winston

Show: "Becker"

Year: 2001

What they wanted: More money

What they got: Undisclosed raises

*

Stars: Malik Yoba and Michael DeLorenzo

Show: "New York Undercover."

Year: 1996

What they wanted: More money, creative input. Yoba wanted a gym and a star trailer. DeLorenzo wanted to direct.

What they got: Show creator Dick Wolf threatened to kill their characters. They returned to work.

*

Star: Rob Morrow

Show: "Northern Exposure"

Year: 1992

What he wanted: Reports said a raise from $20,000 to $45,000 an episode.

What he got: Undisclosed raise

*

Star: Michael Chiklis

Show: "The Commish"

Year: 1992

What he wanted: More money

What he got: A threat that the show would be yanked unless he returned.

*

Star: Valerie Harper

Show: "Valerie"

Year: 1987

What she wanted: More money

What she got: Her character was killed; the show was renamed "Valerie's Family."

*

Stars: Tom Wopat and John Schneider

Show: "The Dukes of Hazzard"

Year: 1982

What they wanted: More money and a share of merchandising royalties

What they got: Temporarily replaced by two other actors. Reached an undisclosed settlement the following year and returned to the show.

*

Star: Suzanne Somers

Show: "Three's Company"

Year: 1980

What she wanted: More money and a percentage of the profits

What she got: Reduced to only a few lines on each episode, and the cold shoulder from her co-stars.

*

Star: Wayne Rogers

Show: "MASH"

Year: 1975

What he wanted: More control of the series' content and direction

What he got: Dishonorable discharge

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