New MGM/UA topper Frank Mancuso is wasting no time in trying to acquire a big project for the studio, even as he struggles feverishly to staff up.

He’s reportedly close to closing a deal for “Higgins & Beech,” based on the true story of two newspaper correspondents who fell in love during the Korean War. The film will star Michelle Pfeiffer and Richard Gere, with Jon Amiel (“Sommersby”) directing.

The script was written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, who last teamed on “Silkwood.” Ephron will co-produce with Jonathan Taplin of Transpacific Films. Kate Guinsburg, Pfeiffer’s partner, will be exec producer.

It’s the true story of Maggy Higgins, the first female war correspondent for a New York newspaper. She worked for the Herald Tribune, and, after getting the cold shoulder from the male war scribes, she shared a Jeep, then a lotmore, with Keyes Beech, the correspondent for the Chicago Sun. Despite bitter competition for stories, they fell in love.

With Herald Tribune reporter Homer Bigart, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage.

The film, primarily a love story, takes place in 1951 during the first six months of the war. Mancuso’s still ironing out the details on the International Creative Management package, but the feeling is this kind of A-level star project is exactly what the studio needs to turn itself around. Mancuso couldn’t be reached for comment.

MEANWHILE, FINDING EXECUTIVES to take the top slots at MGM and UA is proving elusive. DISH hears that a young hotshot at Creative Artists Agency has been sounding out his peers at the studios in an effort to find out who might be interested in making a move. Early on, there was speculation that Mancuso might turn to veteran colleagues from Paramount to run both shingles, but it sure seems like he’s working hard to locate the next great picture pickers.

Trouble is, many of these execs are signed to long-term deals or are reluctant to lose lucrative stock and bonus plans for an uncertain gig. Sources say Mancuso’s still reviewing current staff but is expected to make some noise early in September.

NICHOLS TO CAA: DISH heard director Mike Nichols, the longtime client of ICM’s East Coast titan Sam Cohn, has jumped to CAA, where he’ll be repped by Mike Ovitz and Jay Moloney. This is a shocker, since Nichols has been a Cohn client for more than 20 years and seemed to pretty well have the latter part of his career mapped out with a swarm of prestige projects. Details were scant.

Even though this is a major coup for CAA’s stellar director list, Cohn and ICM might well be drawing commissions from Nichols for some time. The director, who just finished the Jack Nicholson-Michelle Pfeiffer starrer “Wolf,” has big-buck book adaptations that include “The Simple Plan” at Savoy, a three-picture adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” and “Fatherland” at HBO.

Still, this is as much a coup for CAA as when Ovitz lured Tim Burton away from William Morris. It’s also a blow for Cohn, who has lost to CAA such clients as Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg and Glenn Close. Nichols was on vacation, and his camp would neither confirm nor deny the story.

NOSTROMO A GO? “Nostromo” was to have been legendary director David Lean’s last film, but the project unraveled when Lean fell ill in 1991. DISH hears it’s being put back together with Hugh Hudson (“Chariots of Fire”) ready to direct a script by Christopher Hampton. An offer has been made to Alec Baldwin for the starring role.

Once again, DISH hears that producer Serge Silberman, who worked three years with Lean on the project, is talking with TriStar about distributing the film.

The project, based on the 1904 Joseph Conrad novel about corruption and revolution in a South American country, was beset with problems almost since Lean announced his intention to direct Robert Bolt’s script, with Dennis Quaid and Isabella Rossellini in the starring roles. “Nostromo” had to be heavily insured because of concerns about the 83-year-old director’s advanced age. Arthur Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde”) stepped in as standby director, later replaced by Guy Hamilton (“Goldfinger”).

But when Lean took seriously ill just before filming began on March 4, 1991, the film stopped. Lean died on April 17, 1991. The current production once again would be funded through a variety of French, British and Japanese banks and investors. The budget on the original was $ 40 million.

COL MOVIE MOVES: The rumors circulating around Columbia usually pertain to Heidi Fleiss or an alleged cash crunch keeping the studio from making any more movies. Well, guess what? The reality is that Columbia topper Mark Canton greenlit a picture this week, and the studio is putting several other projects on the fast track.

Canton has set a September start for the $ 24 million “Blankman,” a comedy about a pseudo-superhero. Damon Wayans, who stars, wrote the script and co-produces with his manager, Eric Gold. Wayans plays a nerd who, despite possessing neither the requisite superpowers nor even money for a decent costume and gadgets, declares himself a crimefighter and tries to clean up the city. He gets his clock cleaned regularly until he gets the hang of it.

The project seemed stuck in development, but DISH hears that new production head Lisa Henson already is helping to get things moving. Canton pushed it forward after trimming the budget $ 3 million or so.

David Allen Grier, Wayans’ former co-star on “In Living Color,” plays the brother who tries to keep Blankman out of trouble. They’re still trying to sign a female lead, and DISH hears they want Jon Lovitz for the role of a sleazy tabloid guy. Mike Binder directs.

Col’s also trying to get “Before and After” in production before this year, with Barbet Schroeder directing and Meryl Streep starring as a mother who discovers her son’s committed a horrible crime. Col’s been unable to find a leading man, but DISH hears they’re courting Jeff Bridges and Kevin Kline. Another development project gaining speed is Trilogy’s “The Walls Come Tumbling Down,” about a black baseball league in the 1930s. Thomas Carter is being eyed to direct and Denzel Washington is being wooed to play the lead.

FORD FODDER: Harrison Ford seemed to be in the fat when he agreed to an $ 11 million deal to star as Jack Ryan in “A Clear and Present Danger,” with $ 650, 000 in perks. That was before “The Fugitive” reestablished him as the hottest star in town. Now, some feel he could have matched the $ 15 million Arnold Schwarzenegger gets. He might do it next time, with possible paydays including Col’s “Mistress of the Seas” and “Hickock and Cody” at Warner Bros.

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