Gere gears up for epic role

GOOD MORNING: Lawrence of Arabia in China–that describes Richard Gere in “The Devil Soldier.” The epic Caleb Carr book about Frederic Townsend Ward, a U.S. soldier-of-fortune in China in the mid-19th Century, will be produced by Maggie Wilde and Gene Kirkwood via a giant international coproduction with seed money from Silvio Berlusconi. Several companies already are interested in financing the movie, which has a long lead as Gere first stars in “Intersection” at Par, having just wound “Summersby” for New Regency-WB. … Kirkwood already is setting up an office in Milan for future productions. They include “Red Square,” Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel (Random House) to his “Gorky Park” which was coproduced by Kirkwood with Howard Koch Jr. “Square” will be in the stalls in Nov. and a Book of the Month selection. Smith also will write the screenplay. While “Gorky Park” had to be filmed in Finland, the sequel definitely will be made in Russia. … David Picker winged into town on a triple mission. He had been sweating for weeks in the Texas Panhandle with “Leap of Faith” starring Steve Martin as the unique (what else?) faith healer-con man, Debra Winger, his manager, plus intrigue with Lolita Davidovich, Liam Neeson and Lukas Haas. Picker was here talking the pic’s progress and future plans with Par. He also was screening his “Saint of Fort Washington” which stars Danny Glover and Matt Dillon. And Picker set Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”) to direct Athol Fugard’s “Tso Tsi,” the South Africa-set feature which he, Harry Belafonte and Robert Halmi will produce. Belafonte had met up with Picker on the Groom, (!) Texas, location of “Leap of Faith” to talk the movie about five young South African boys orphaned in apartheid riots who become predators–and whose lives are changed by a newborn child. Belafonte tells me he will not appear in the movie. He also acquired rights to “Parting the Waters” with Jonathan Demme to direct at TriStar.

SIDNEY POITIER WILL BE IN N.Y. and seeing pal Belafonte next week. Do they own any properties together? “We own each other,” said Harry. Poitier’s “Face of Eden” has yet to be greenlighted by Columbia–you might say it has been “yellow lighted.” We were pleased to learn Belafonte and Michel Legrand are readying an album (Polygram) of movie music–not necessarily Oscar-winning tunes, although he duets with Nana Mouskouri on “Beauty & the Beast” Will there be any flak over Steve Martin’s religioso portrayal in “Leap of Faith”? No–it’s entertainment, claimed Picker, who produces with Michael Manheim, while Richard Pearce directs. It’s a new look for Martin, in a reddish-blonde wig, wearing an all-mirrored coat and backed by 25 gospel singers as he saves souls–and heals bodies during revival meetings in giant tents. They shot in towns like Claude, Tulia, Happy, Plainview and the earlier-noted Groom, Texas–all to represent “Rustwater, Kansas.” Picker said he was glad to take over the movie when “old friend” Dan Melnick departed over a disagreement with Par on dough. But Melnick didn’t miss being on those sizzling Texas Panhandle locations. “Even the water is served pan fried,” he laughed. Meanwhile, Melnick continues to phone-talk regularly to Martin, his friend and star of his previous pix. And Melnick’s since made a fast trip to Japan for future feature financing from Japanese Satellite B’casting for his IndieProd banner.

GEORGE BUSH AND BILL CLINTON sandwich Kevin Dobson at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national confab in Indianapolis next week. Bush speaks first, Monday, followed by Dobson who receives the VFW’s “Serve America Award” for promoting volunteerism at VA medical facilities. And Clinton’s skedded to follow, Tuesday. Dobson then returns here to start the new “Knots Landing” season. … Wayne Rogers signed with William Morris and kicks off with a starring role in a “heartwarming comedy” feature, “Hello I Must Be Going” for the Leucadia Film Corp., Bill Tannen produces. … Friz Freleng receives his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame Aug. 20, his 87th birthday. Friz is fit as ever and busy with drawing limited edition cartoon cels which sell for as much as $1,200 apiece. “I’m making more money than I did when I was working for WB,” he said. He was at the studio 30 years from 1930 creating cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc. and winning four Oscars. He later partnered with David DePatie and their success is highlighted by the “Pink Panther” character, which continues to bring in residuals. And will be accented by the upcoming Blake Edwards’ “Son of the Pink Panther.” … Jeannine Stein, L.A. Times society writer/columnist, and film editor Mark Elson are engaged to wed. … Christa and Sam Fuller celebrated their 25th wedding anni in Paris, following his stints in Avignon and Palermo. They next head to Edinburgh. … “Parker Lewis’ ” Billy Jayne and wife April welcomed son Miles Joseph J. Aug. 8 at Cedars-Sinai. … Clint Eastwood, dining with his Wm. Morris agent Lenny Hirshan at Nicky Blair’s, was surprised when Nicky presented him with a cake, decorated, “Unforgiven–$ 100 Million.” … Nancy Davis and Larry Thompson at Morton’s Warner Toub, back from Barcelona, en route home to Mexico, reunioned (47th) at Chasen’s with the sole remaining member of his WWII bomber crew.

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