Oscar won’t catch Letterman unprepared

GOOD MORNING: David Letterman is serious — well — about preparing his Oscar hostint and has begun looking at tapes of previous Oscars to see what hosts did right — and wrong. “He’s too much of a pro to be flip about this,” sez Robert Morton, who exec produces Letterman’s latenighter with Peter Lassally. “Remember — David had a very successful primetime special of his own.” Morton and Lassally (who also do the Tom Snyder show and have two other shows in development) have joined David’s efforts to ready for Oscar night and are assembling the writing staff as well. Who was responsible for convincing Letterman to host the Oscars? Michael Ovitz, plus his “Late Show-men,” including his head writers. Letterman arrives here mid-week before the March 27 Oscarcast — he’s off the preceding Thursday and Friday nights thanks to NCAA basketball games. But he’ll red-eye back to N.Y. right after Monday’s Oscars to host his Tuesday show live from N.Y., when he’ll then have ample opportunity to give his reactions to Oscar. That, too, should be a helluva show … Paul Newman, a cinch to be Oscar-nominated (Feb. 14) for “Nobody’s Fool,” told producer Scott Rudin he returns to racing Feb. 4-5 at Daytona! Rudin had called Newman to tell him the terrif biz being done by the pic. But Newman said, “Don’t tell me.” Rudin: “Well, if you did want to hear — and, if I were to tell you, believe me, you’d be happy!” They have deferred gross deals. Rudin and “Nobody’s Fool’ author Richard Russo and director Robert Benton are talking a reteaming on a mystery-comedy. Newman, too? “Any time.”

NO BIG BIRTHDAY celebration for George Burns’ 99th Friday. Today, he dedicates Gracie Allen Drive, which intersects with George Burns Road at Cedars-Sinai, and tonight he dines at Chasen’s with a couple of close friends and his son and daughter … Tuesday, Elton John dined at Chasen’s with Jeff Katzenberg. Bob Petersen hosts a Super Bowl party Jan. 29 at Chasen’s — while former Chasen’s (chili) bowl host Pierre Cossette parties at Sardi’s … Margaret Thatcher requested a print of “The Madness of King George” to view when she guests Feb. 10 at the Rancho Mirage home of the Walter Annenbergs. Samuel Goldwyn Jr. is happy to oblige … Don Rickles, who just wound a dramatic role as a casino boss in “Casino” for Martin Scorsese, next is the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the animated “Toy Story,” joining a chorus of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Rickles returns to Vegas Feb. 14, his 35th anni up there, to play the Desert Inn … Joel Grey heads to Nogales to play the father role in “The Fantasticks” for Michael Ritchie … Nancy and Sid Ganis’ oldest daughter Julia weds prop man Scott Leslie Sunday at the Bel Air Bay Club. Instead of the de rigueur rehearsal dinner, the out-of-town guests will have a “rehearsal screening” of Sony Pictures/TriStar’s “Legends of the Fall.” Sid, of course is worldwide president of marketing for Columbia and TriStar … Goodbye Vine Street, hello Broadway. “Smokey Joe’s Cafe, The Songs of Lieber & Stoller,” continuing its SRO stand, breaking records at the Doolittle Theater, closes Sunday afternoon, opens at the Virginia in N.Y. March 2. The cast continues final performances here with the same nonstop enthusiasm as if they were auditioning, and all (except Robert Torti, who is unable to go) will repeat in Gotham. Next at the Doolittle is “The Woman Warrior,” about a Chinese-American girl; “Black Elk Speaks” is at the Taper and “Miss Saigon” at the Ahmanson. “As wide a diversity of culture as we’ve had in this town in a long time,” says Gordon Davidson, who oversees all three. And he was honored Wednesday by the L.A. Clergy Network Summit, appropriately, for his “contribution to the multicultural efforts to the community.”

FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 15 YEARS, Bob Newhart hosts “Saturday Night Live,” Feb. 11 … Rod McKuen, who hasn’t performed in public in 12 years, will team with the great Corky Hale at the Gardenia for “An Evening of Love Songs,” Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day … Phyllis Diller makes her soap opera debut Monday, taping “The Bold and the Beautiful”– playing a beautician who performs makeovers … At Koo Koo Roo on Beverly Drive, Barbra Streisand with Richard Baskin sampled the chicken. Just before Barbra arrived, Jay Leno was there picking up takeout for himself and wife Mavis … Bill Hertz, well-liked director of marketing and public relations for Mann Theatres, is recuping at Encino-Tarzana Medical Center after successful bypass and heart valve surgery … Ruda Dauphin chairs the Jan. 23 tribute to 100 years of American film at New York’s National Academy of Design — to make people aware of the importance of preserving film. Winging in are the Acad’s Arthur Hiller and Fay Kanin.

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