When The Sopranos aired between 1999-2007, it was the biggest show HBO had ever produced. During that stretch, its ratings peaked at over 22 million viewers for a single episode (the Season Three premiere). It would take close to two decades until Game of Thrones topped that figure.
With that in mind, you can see why Sopranos cast members wanted to get paid what they thought they were worth. Eventually, they got the kind of money that was unheard of on cable. James Gandolfini, the show’s indispensable star, was earning $1 million per episode before it was done.
While that number sounds big, it got smaller placed next to HBO’s $800 million in profits in 2002. So, on at least two occasions, the actors (beginning with Gandolfini) went through very public, very ugly salary negotiations.
Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano), who joined cast members in at least one of them, joked about how they staged a sit-in on the set she deemed “Occupy Vesuvio.” At one point, Falco couldn’t help but consider the Sopranos cast was crazy.
Falco thought a role on ‘The Sopranos’ wasn’t worth losing.
Given that The Sopranos was a mob show, it wouldn’t take much for the writers to handle an actor who wouldn’t agree to a contract with HBO. However, it never came to that. According to David Chase, the only people who got whacked were meant to be killed for the story.
Still, the threat existed, and it had to occur to the cast members when they played hardball during salary negotiations. In 2012, Falco recalled one particularly protracted battle between the actors and HBO.
“There was a period of mutiny within the cast members, who thought we should be getting more money,” she told Vanity Fair. “And this was a very complicated issue, because I know HBO was making a lot of money.” In her eyes, there was more than money at stake.
“I thought, Are you f***ing kidding me? I worked at restaurants for 20 years, and this thing comes along … and I’m going to complain about not getting enough money?” Though it may have sounded crazy to her, she joined her fellow cast members. And they won the battle.
The ‘Sopranos’ cast won the negotiations and stayed alive on the show, too.
Prior to the final season of The Sopranos (which HBO extended to 21 episodes), the lead cast members all renegotiated their contracts. HBO couldn’t have done it without Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), Christopher (Michael Imperioli), and Bobby Baccala (Steve Schirripa) on board.
They all won their fights with the network, as did Falco and Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi). Even though Christopher and Bobby met their ends in the final season, it took until very late in the show. By then, they’d earned a fortune playing their beloved characters.
As for Falco, she ended her run earning over $500,000 per episode. Unlike some other Sopranos actors who struggle to land great roles, the in-demand Falco began a great run on Nurse Jackie after The Sopranos ended.
These days, with a net worth estimated near $40 million, she can look back at the negotiations and laugh. But for the actors who had their roles of a lifetime on the show, they did right to get every dollar they could.