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James Gandolfini is trying to put a hit out on his employment contract with HBO.

Gandolfini, who plays mob boss Tony Soprano on the network’s “The Sopranos,” filed suit Thursday in California Superior Court seeking declaratory relief that would free him from being obliged to return for the next season of HBO’s mob drama, its fifth.

The lawsuit alleges Gandolfini was not notified within 10 days after HBO agreed to pay creator David Chase $20 million for the show’s fifth season. Gandolfini contends that is a violation off his contract and wants to be free of the pact. An additional claim is that Gandolfini’s contract would exceed the seven-year limit for personal services contracts by the time a sixth season was ordered.

“Our legal position is that there is no obligation for James Gandolfini to perform services for the coming season,” said attorney Martin Singer, who was not saying definitively that Gandolfini wouldn’t return as the mob patriarch. “There have been negotiations going on for our client to potentially return. They haven’t reached an agreement and we have until March 24 to evaluate what to do. That is the day they’ve requested for him to come back to work.”

The legal action took HBO execs by surprise, since they were in the throes of sweetening Gandolfini’s deal for the upcoming season. “This is nothing more than a further renegotiation tactic by an actor with a binding contract,” said an HBO spokeswoman.

The timing of the suit would appear that it might be ramping up the tension to get Gandolfini’s salary in line with some of his broadcast network peers. Gandolfini gets $400,000 an episode, a figure comparable to the likes of “Frasier” costars Jane Leeves and Peri Gilpin, as well as “West Wing” star Martin Sheen, who pulls down around $425,000 an episode. Those salaries are well below the $800,000 paid Ray Romano, the $1 million an episode paid the “Friends” cast or the $1.6 million paid Kelsey Grammer.

Those stars, however, have renegotiated their contracts once their shows have been declared a success, just as Gandoflini did in September 2000, when he signed a $10 million deal for two seasons.

“Sopranos” seasons, however, are only 13 episodes and take nine months to shoot, about the same time commitment as a 22-show network series. Also, “The Sopranos” hasn’t shown the syndication potential those other shows possess.

“We know that a lot of people in television are paid a lot more than James Gandolfini,” Singer said. “He is an integral part of the show. HBO is considered to be the most profitable network. Whether or not ‘Sopranos’ and James Gandolfini is a significant reason for that isn’t an issue for a litigation lawyer. He has others who get involved in it. But after reviewing the facts, we firmly believe that Mr. Gandolfini doesn’t have to come to work if he doesn’t want to.”

HBO has waited for Chase to complete the majority of the episodes before scheduling “The Sorpanos” and as many as 15 months between season starts. It is likely that the fifth season of “The Sorpanos” will debut in early 2004.