By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated March 10, 2003 01:15 PM

The contract dispute between HBO and “The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini has grown increasingly bitter, with the cable network now claiming publicly that the actor’s lawsuit to free him from his contract could result in the demise of the four-year-old show, reports The New York Times.

Gandolfini, 41, was named outstanding actor in a drama series at Sunday night’s Screen Actors Guild Awards for his role as Mob boss Tony Soprano, and, without using the word “lawsuit” in his acceptance speech, did acknowledge his current skirmish with HBO (which, like PEOPLE, is part of AOL Time Warner).

“Maybe there’s some stuff lately that makes me seem ungrateful, but HBO — I’d like to thank you for what you’ve done … it is a great place to work,” he said.

HBO chairman Chris Albrecht tells The Times he was stunned when he learned about the actor’s breach-of-contract lawsuit, which was filed last Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court.

“I had hoped that we had the kind of relationship with Jim that would have precluded this kind of thing,” Albrecht said. “I guess I was wrong.”

He added, “I can certainly see a scenario where this threatens the future of the series.”

Albrecht told the paper that contract negotiations with Gandolfini had been proceeding when the lawsuit was filed, which Gandolfini’s attorney, Martin Singer, said was done to force the issue of Gandolfini’s being paid on the level of other TV stars.

According to published reports, the actor currently makes $400,000 per episode but is seeking to double that figure.

The new season of “The Sopranos,” said to be its final one, is due to begin shooting March 24, though that start date is being brought into question given the legal fight between star and network.