PARAMOUNT EXPECTS “The Firm” to be a huge hit and is trying to keep a firm hold on its star, Tom Cruise. Dish hears exex have been scouring their properties to find a killer, franchise-type project for Cruise — and that the one he’s interested in is the screen adaptation of “Mission: Impossible,” the series that ran on CBS from 1966-73. Peter Graves toplined the series as head of a secret government agency called the Impossible Missions Force, but as such he was principally the conduit for interaction among an ensemble espionage group.

Word is Par hopes to get writers to rework the script, so that Cruise becomes the main spy guy. Even though this would distinguish it from its original incarnation, the series still has name recognition. Of course, if Cruise turns thumbs down, this project could self-destruct in five seconds.

Cruise wouldn’t be the first superstar to take this route. Mel Gibson’s starring in “Maverick” for Warner Bros. and Harrison Ford is getting great word of mouth on WB’s “The Fugitive.”

THE LAST ACTION in Columbia’s beef with the L.A. Times over “Last Action Hero” is that the studio will back off on threats to pull ads and deny access to reporters, Dish hears. The spat, over a disputed report about a second test screening of the Schwarzenegger-starrer, generated more heat than the movie after N.Y. Times scribe Bernie Weinraub revealed that Columbia sent The L.A. Times a letter cutting off ad and edit ties unless Jeffrey Wells, the freelancer who penned the speculative piece, no longer wrote about the studio.

Col has rescinded that threat, which should come as a great relief to Wells, who’d even hired a private eye to ferret out the people he’d spoken to, say sources. That’s because when the Times asked him to produce the smoking movie patron, the sources evaporated. Col denied a screening had been held, with exex claiming the reporter dented the movie’s momentum with that and several other stories he’d written. Some feel his sources confused “Action” with a test screening of “Rising Sun,” which did take place in Pasadena the same day.

A case could be made that each side erred badly.

Col fanned negative energy by making a fuss when its biggest movie opened, while Times Calendar editors seemed unwilling to acknowledge it could have been wrong. Even if Wells, a freelancer, got duped, the editors had time to pull the piece, particularly after Col exex protested so hard. ]

Calendar editor John Lindsay says running a correction was never an option: “It’s simple. If people have a complaint and demand a retraction, the newspaper has ways to take care of that. It’s done a million times. We’re not going to have a movie studio demand that something has to be done about a writer, and we’re not going to blacklist a writer based on what they say.” Lindsay says Wells will still contribute — he’s written a piece for Sunday – though not on Columbia.

“The deal is there’s no limitation on what he writes about … He’s a freelancer, but we’re not building a fence around him.” Lindsay says he too was surprised the issue became a wellspring of controversy, but denied he dug his heels in because of past criticism that the paper doesn’t cover Hollywood hard enough. GQ is doing a story on that issue now.

“That is not an issue here,” says Lindsay. The paper’s still investigating Wells’ claims, though Lindsay still feels the story never actually concluded the screening had taken place: “I wasn’t sitting there blaring across the top of Calendar ‘Hero Screening Bombs.’ It was a fairly well edited piece that said, ‘Hey, there’s rumors, all kinds of nonsense out there about this movie, and here’s people denying it.’ Was there a hoax, was there a conspiracy against Columbia? It’s not a unique thing, Hollywood being cannibalistic and turning on each other.”

Col exex were unreachable at deadline. They’re refocusing their energy on getting a decent gross out of “Action Hero”– they report two weekdays of $ 1.8 million or better — and the upcoming “In the Line of Fire.” Which puts Wells, who wouldn’t return calls, out of the line of fire for now.

GANG TIME? Add another project on Martin Scorsese’s ever lengthening directing list. Dish hears he and Jay Cocks, film critic for Time magazine, have just turned in a draft of “The Gangs of New York,” with talk it could be his next, though the Richard Price script for “Clockers” is still the fave. Scorsese and Cocks adapted “The Age of Innocence,” which Scorsese finishes shortly before making a decision what to do next.

Alberto Grimaldi, who first optioned the “Gangs” book, is attached to produce. It’s based on the 1927 Herbert Asbury story about the history of the first ethnic gangs of Gotham from 1844-1863. Grimaldi, by the way, also has been developing “Siege of Leningrad,” for which he’s gotten Volker (“The Tin Drum”) Schlondorff to direct. Alberto’s son, Maurizio Grimaldi, is president of PEA Films, which is developing “Siege.” It will be done as a negative pickup.

CAST SYSTEM: Just when it seemed Meryl Streep was a lock for the Eric Pleskow-Barry Spikings pic “Beyond Rangoon,” problems over timing will prevent it. Dish hears the new top contender is “Sleepless in Seattle” star Meg Ryan, who’ll likely start in Malaysia in January with John Boorman directing … Don Johnson is back to the tube, sort of. His production company is trying to set up a TV version of “Auntie Mame” at Paramount. Though Suzanne Pleshette was mentioned as the possible star, that fell apart and they’re looking elsewhere … Paramount has fixed its sights on Ed Harris for the adult male lead in “Milk Money,” in which Melanie Griffith will star. No deal has yet been signed.

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