By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated June 12, 2003 11:35 AM

TV fans may know James Gandolfini as New Jersey Mob boss Tony Soprano, but his fellow cast members on HBO’s “The Sopranos” may now think of him as Santa Claus.

Gandolfini, 41, whose recent clash with the network resulted in a healthy pay hike, handed out five-figure checks last week to Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Tony Sirico and others, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

All told, about a dozen people benefited from Gandolfini’s generous gesture, which cost him $500,000 — all his own cash, says the trade paper. It reportedly was his way of acknowledging that the show’s success hinges on the strength of its ensemble cast.

The check-dispensing took place on the first week of filming season five of the show. The Reporter adds that HBO (which, like PEOPLE, is part of AOL Time Warner) and “Sopranos” creator-executive producer David Chase are currently discussing the possibility of a sixth season.

That may take some doing. HBO’s option for picking up the actors’ contracts for a sixth season expired Tuesday, but the cast reportedly agreed to a one-week extension. An HBO spokeswoman declined comment.

Meanwhile, because filming is only now underway, the fifth season of “The Sopranos” will not hit the air until February or March of next year. Chase told New York’s Daily News that he may extend this next season beyond the typical 13 episodes, because he’s finding there’s a lot of ground to cover.