NEW YORK – Barry Levinson is close to agreeing to direct Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in “Wag the Dog,” a David Mamet-scripted drama for New Line, sources said.

The film will be produced by Jane Rosenthal, president of Tribeca Productions, and is a co-production between Tribeca, Hoffman’s Punch Prods. and Levinson’s Baltimore Pictures. Hoffman and De Niro starred for Levinson in “Sleepers” earlier this year.

Although the deal isn’tcompleted, “Wag the Dog” is expected to be Levinson’s next film, with a Jan. 13 start date. He was to have directed the big-budget adaptation of Michael Crichton’s underwater novel “Sphere,” with Hoffman and Andre Braugher. That film’s fall start was pushed back to March by Levinson so that the film’s whopping budget could be pared and its scriptrevised.

Read into it

In the meantime, Levinson’s enthusiasm for “Wag” was bolstered by a recent all-star cast reading at the Peninsula Hotel, overseen by Rosenthal. Levinson received permission last week from reluctant Warner Bros. executives to slip the film in. He’ll try to shoot the pic in less than 30 days, then jump almost immediately back into “Sphere.” “Wag the Dog” is a political satire in which a presidential advisor and Hollywood producer work to stage an event that will take media attention off the chief executive, whose standing in the polls has fallen after being caught in the arms of a Girl Scout on a tour of the White House.

The presidential advisor and producer decide to push the country to he brink of war with Albania, fully expecting to defuse the situation before a real conflict ensues. They go so far as to create a hero, who turns out to be a criminally insane soldier. Sources said Ron Eldard, who last starred in “ER,” is in talks for that role after performing it at the reading.

Darin bio to follow

Levinson will have an extraordinarily busy 1997. After he completes “Wag the Dog” and then “Sphere,” he’ll start production on “Dreamer,” the biopic of singer Bobby Darin which has been scripted by “Sleepers” author Lorenzo Carcaterra. Already, there’s talk that Johnny Depp is interested in playing Darin, with Drew Barrymore as Sandra Dee, Bette Midler as Darin’s sister Nina, and “Sleepers” star Bruno Kirby as Darin’s right hand man, Charlie.

According to sources, Levinson has to get the film in production, or close to it, by year’s end, or WB could lose the life and music rights from the Darin estate.

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