NEW YORK – The world has become an oyster for Sopranos star James Gandolfini — albeit one with cable TV-flavored cocktail sauce on the side.
While Gandolfini, 39, enjoys his immense popularity and rising stock in Hollywood, some within the entertainment trade are beginning to wonder out loud whether he has become too hot a property to remain on the HBO mob opera.
"The screen momentum is enough to make Dish wonder if Gandolfini will follow Sopranos creator David Chase into a deal for a fifth season of the HBO drama," Variety writer Michael Fleming said last week in his "Dish" column.
"Despite last year's lead actor Emmy and all the accolades, Gandolfini has expressed reluctance to return to the series beyond the upcoming fourth season," he wrote.
Gandolfini's movie career — which started unpromisingly last year co-starring with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt in The Mexican — appears on the verge of taking off.
He recently finished filming The Last Castle, in which he plays a corrupt warden of a military prison opposite Robert Redford — and the advance word on the film is that it is blockbuster stuff.
Meanwhile, Gandolfini is being pursued to play opposite mega-star Robert De Niro in a movie called Scared Guys — a comedy/action movie about a pair of agoraphobes who rarely leave their apartments. (He recently completed a co-starring role with Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand in the new Coen brothers film, The Man Who Wasn't There.)
Gandolfini is commanding as much as $6 million per movie these days — several times what he gets for a season of The Sopranos.
It all has Hollywood insiders wondering whether the reclusive New York actor will still be willing to go to work on The Sopranos in 2003 — after he's had a couple of movie hits under his belt and could be pulling down eight-figure salaries for a feature film.
Gandolfini himself is saying he's ready for a change.
"I don't think I'll do a Mafia character again," he said in a rare interview with Canada's National Post.
"I couldn't play another thug. I want to get away from the violence a little bit because it is starting to bother me personally. Not to sound [pretentious], but if you don't challenge yourself, then you don't find anything interesting," he said.
"If he stays for a fifth season of The Sopranos, he'll be able to afford to be choosy," said TV Guide columnist Matt Roush.
"If the idea is that he's become too big for his britches and decides to turn his back on HBO — where everyone in the world is clamoring to work — then he falls into David Caruso-land."
Caruso was the sudden star from NYPD Blue who left after the first season to pursue a movie career — and didn't get very far.
"I don't think Gandolfini has near the ego that was evident in that particular career move," said Roush. "But we'd be looking for him to fail if he left The Sopranos before it was time."
HBO thus far is reluctant to talk about its mob boss and why he has not yet signed — like Chase — for a fifth season.
"It's HBO's policy not to comment on contracts," an HBO spokeswoman said.