‘Hunchback’ hustles for Christmas release

GOOD MORNING: A Christmas rush is on for the theatrical release of the live-action, Alliance-produced Turner Network TVersion of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Craig Baumgarten, who has been commuting among locations in Rouen, Prague and Budapest, says their version will open in European and South American theaters in advance of its showing next year here on TNT. It stars Mandy Patinkin as Quasimodo, Salma Hayek as Esmeralda, Richard Harris as Frollo and Edward Atterton as Gringoire. Baumgarten admits he and partner Gary Adelson had tried three years ago to sell it to the majors as a feature, in an effort to beat out the planned Disney version. When Turner came in –“and they were very supportive”– the deal was also made with Alliance. Meanwhile, Turner Home Entertainment released the “Hunchback” of 1939, at $19.98, in its first-wave package of RKO classics. It stars Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Maureen O’Hara and Thomas Mitchell. It has done “very well,” I was told: 300,000 were shipped. And now, what does the Disney cartoon “Hunchback” mean to Turner’s “live” moviemakers? “It helps us a lot,” Baumgarten said, “It revives interest to see the real story.” He agrees Disney’s version is “marvelous,” but says it’s “a kids’ film. Ours is the classic — and I believe it should be made every generation.” In addition to the ’39 version, there was the original 1923 silent starring Lon Chaney, a ’57 version starring Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida and a ’82 TVersion starring Anthony Hopkins and Lesley-Anne Down. This version is budgeted at $8 million, but the producer says it will look like much more. F’rinstance, in Budapest, production designer Trevor Williams built a Notre Dame set — the facade is 120 feet tall up to the bell tower, plus village and the Seine streaming by — for $1.3 million. “It would have cost over $5 million elsewhere,” Baumgarten said. Director Peter Medak was amazed at Williams’ ingenuity. The interiors are built in the Mafilm studios, exteriors shot at the Rouen cathedral. No, they didn’t even try to get an OK to use the real Notre Dame in Paris, figuring it would be impossible and too expensive. In Prague, producer Stephane Reichel found a “court of miracles” in an ancient castle … I talked to Richard Harris in Budapest, where he dumbfounded all by showing up with his head completely shaved for his role of Frollo. He said it was his idea. Harris says the John Fasano script is one of the best he’s ever read and his role “is an actor’s dream.” He and Patinkin have not yet had their grand final scene together, when Quasimodo throws Frollo off the top of Notre Dame. “And there’ll be no special effects,” Harris said. “We leave that stuff to Hollywood.” Patinkin, by the way, undergoes four hours’ makeup daily. Although Harris calls “The Field” his favorite film (he was Oscar-nominated for this as well as for “This Sporting Life”), he thinks “Hunchback” will rate with ’em. He’s still “heartbroken” over the failure of “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway,” saying, “Robert Duvall and I thought it was our best work.” Upcoming for Harris is “The Barber of Siberia,” co-starring with Julia Ormond.

A NEW BLOSSOMING for TV’s “Blossom,” Mayim Bialik: the 21-year-old is off to Tuscany to present data she discovered in a lab research project at UCLA, where she’s studying neurology. She’ll deliver her findings at the Advanced Study Institute’s Intl. confab in their “behavior” seg. Mayim said she’ll return to showbiz “when I find a script that’s spectacular.” She says her ICM agents receive a lot of script offers for her, but “I’m taking things one day at a time, to get a well-rounded education.” Psychobiology had been her original choice of a major … The “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” musical tribute to Savannah’s own Johnny Mercer continues on tour following its smash bow at the Lincoln Center, which I attended. Author John Berendt will again narrate. Julius La Rosa will be joining the Lady Chablis, Emma Kelly (“the lady of 10,000 songs”), John Pizzarelli, and Mercer Foundation president Margaret Whiting. The tour begins Nov. 6 at the Kennedy Center, ends Nov. 16 at UCLA. Whiting’s husband Jack Wrangler directs the show, and Bill Charlap is musical director … La Rosa’s coming out with an album of standards aptly titled “Better Than Ever” (Avalon).

IT’S A RECORD FOR HARPERCOLLINS, which is readying 500,000 copies of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s “A Secret Affair”– three weeks after receiving her first-draft manuscript. Meanwhile, a paperback of her “Everything to Gain,” with art from the CBS Oct. 20 telefilm, hits the stalls … Tippi Hedren and Ken Howard duet “Love Letters” Sunday at Stella Adler Theater to benefit Hedren’s Shambala wild animal preserve … We were saddened by the death Thursday of the so-well-liked Shirley Alter, wife of “Price Is Right” director Paul Alter. Shirley was also the sister of Jim Burrows. Services will be held Monday 11 ayem at Hillside … A long list of comedians convene Aug. 28 at the Laugh Factory to help the family of Ray Combs, who took his own life recently, leaving his wife and family with enormous debts.

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