KINNEAR KEEPING UP PIC MOMENTUM

While Jay Leno and David Letterman battle it out nightly for chat host supremacy, “Later” host Greg Kinnear continues to carve a niche that makes him unique among the big talkers: He’s becoming a bona fide movie star.

Sources say Kinnear is close to signing a deal to play the lead role in “Dear God,” an offbeat Paramount comedy that will be directed by Garry Marshall and produced by Steve Tisch. The film was first considered by Tom Hanks, who worked with Tisch on “Forrest Gump,” before Hanks instead decided to direct his own Fox project, “That Thing You Do” (which Robert Duvall has just agreed to take a role in, by the way). The principals began negotiating with Kinnear after getting a sneak peek at the Sydney Pollack-directed Paramount remake of “Sabrina,” in which Kinnear made his feature starring debut alongside Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond.

The budget is still being worked out, and Kinnear is negotiating with NBC about getting time to make another movie. “Dear God” will be much more of a test for his acting chops. It’s about an underachiever who gets a job in the U.S. Postal Service’s dead letter office. He finds his niche after he discovers that many of the dead letters are addressed to subjects who don’t possess mailing addresses, namely God, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. He begins answering these letters, and unwittingly begins to make the subjects’ dreams come true. Soon, the media’s looking for this miracle maker, as are the postal authorities, who smell mail fraud. In the spirit of “Miracle on 34th Street,” the pic ends with the hero being brought to trial and rescued by the people he’s helped. The script was written by Warren Leight, Jeff Arch and Tim Kring.

Neither Kinnear’s William Morris reps, Fred Westheimer and Greg Lipstone, nor Paramount would comment.

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