Busy thesp Thornton lines up trio of roles

Billy Bob Thornton is nearing deals to star in three films before he gets back behind the camera for the first time since “Sling Blade.” Now that he’s finalized his deal to star with Bruce Willis in Touchstone’s “Armageddon,” Thornton is also in talks to star in Paramount’s “A Simple Plan” and Warner Bros.’ “Jack Frost.”

“A Simple Plan” is Par’s adaptation of the Scott Smith novel long developed by producer Scott Rudin. Thornton’s being wooed to play the brother of a man (Bill Paxton) who finds a windfall of cash in the crashed remains of a drug trafficker’s airplane. The brothers begin to rack up a body count trying to protect the loot. John Boorman will direct.

Thornton’s also in discussions to star in “Jack Frost,” a holiday pic for Warner Bros. It’s about a jazzman named Jack Frost who neglects his kid, dies, then comes back as Frosty. The film was originally scripted by Mark Steven Johnson, with Sam and Ivan Raimi doing a rewrite that Sam Raimi will direct. Thornton’s been offered the role of a bandmate who becomes surrogate father to the boy and confidante of his mother when Frost dies.

Those projects would follow on the heels of Thornton agreeing to star in “Armageddon” (Daily Variety, July 28). While Bruce Willis heads a team sent up in a space ship to land on and detonate an earth-bound asteroid the size of Texas, Thornton will play the NASA head who guides him from mission control, a role likened to Ed Harris’ “Apollo 13” perf. Joining Willis and Thornton are Steve Buscemi and Ben Affleck in the Jonathan Hensleigh-scripted drama for director Michael Bay and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Gale Anne Hurd. The pic rolls in August and will open July 2, 1998.

Thornton, who’ll next be seen co-starring in Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn,” is about to finish work as the James Carville composite in the Mike Nichols-directed “Primary Colors.” He’s zeroing in on his first directing effort since the celebrated “Sling Blade,” which cost $980,000 and grossed $26 million domestic for Miramax. Thornton has three untitled scripts, and will decide shortly which to do first, probably in June. Thornton is repped by Todd Harris and John Fogelman of William Morris, and managed by Geyer Kosinski of Addis-Wechsler.

“ER” OPERATING IN UNISON FOR LASALLE: Last year, George Clooney got his “ER” cast members to boycott “ET.” This year, the surgical staff of TV’s top-rated show is taking it upon themselves to back away from TV Guide because of how the mag has treated Eriq LaSalle. Over the past 18 months, LaSalle sat twice for photo shoots for a cover story, originally expected December 1996. It has yet to run.

The editors seem to be delaying it like elective surgery, while running covers of other “ER” cast members like Anthony Edwards. “ER” exec producer John Wells and LaSalle’s fellow residents have had enough. Especially after LaSalle was told he’d now get the cover in the dead post-holiday week of Dec. 27, the equivalent of giving a show a 4 a.m. timeslot.

Noah Wyle just declined to pose for a September cover, his spokesman confirmed, “because of the situation between TV Guide and Eriq. He holds no ill will toward TV Guide, but until Eriq’s cover runs, Noah doesn’t feel comfortable considering a cover for himself.”

TV Guide editor Steven Reddicliffe, who confirmed the TV surgeon will most likely be cover material in December, explained the delay this way: “We look for timely storylines, and last time we were under the impression he’d be more prominent (on the show) as George Clooney was de-emphasized. It turned out to be the year of Anthony Edwards.”

ANY TAKERS FOR “THE GIVER”? The 1993 Newberry Prize-winning Lois Lowry novel “The Giver” is being shopped, with “Jumanji” director Joe Johnston planning to direct. It’s a co-production between Lancit Media’s Cecily Truett and David Michaels, and AsIs Prods.’ Jeff Bridges and Neil Koenigsberg. They’ve got a script by Bob Weide (“Mother Night”). It’s a futuristic coming-of-age story about an adolescent boy trying to escape the “Brave New World”-type society he’s being raised in. Bridges may play the boy’s father.

RIFKIN’S BUSY DANCE CARD: Adam Rifkin has become so busy as a screenwriter, he could use the third arm Judd Nelson sported in Rifkin’s early pic “The Dark Backward.” It all started after he got canned from directing the Pamela Anderson Lee pic “Barb Wire” because he wanted it to be campy, while the moneymen wanted “Pambo.”

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me because next thing I know, I’m sitting in Steven Spielberg’s office and he’s pitching me a movie he wants me to write.” Spielberg had previously sparked to Rifkin’s script “Mousehunt,” which DreamWorks opens in December.

“Steven summoned me personally, and pitched me this idea he had about small soldiers, asking me if I would be interested,” said Rifkin. “It’s like being summoned by the president. What was I going to say, no?” The script became “Small Soldiers,” which Joe Dante will direct in September.

“A Bill Gates type obtains Mattel, and decides to make smarter toys, able to walk, talk, think,” said Rifkin. “The toys are much smarter than expected, and hold a town hostage while they gather in two separate groups and wage war on each other during a test marketing campaign.”

Rifkin just directed “Denial” for Kushner-Locke, will write “Little Monsters” at Warner Bros. and just finished a rewrite of “W.P. Pullet, Child Tamer” for Disney. Rifkin’s also hatched “Undercover Girls,” a Kushner-Locke pilot that’s a mix between “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Monkees,” with Fox, UPN and the WB Network bidding, and he’s got a UPN pilot called “The Burpelson Brothers.” He’s also making “Welcome to Hollywood,” a mock documentary. “I like to keep busy,” he understated. He’s managed by Brad Wyman, and repped by William Morris’ Alan Gasmer, Joanne Roberts, Cassian Elwes and Bobbi Thompson.

DISHINGS: Susan Mulcahy, creator of the Mr. Showbiz online service, is ankling her post. After three years at Paul Allen’s Seattle-based Starwave Corp. as veep of entertainment, Mulcahy plans to hatch her own media consulting business. “It was time to move on,” she explained. … Jeff Long’s novel “The Descent,” about explorers who stumble into hell, was acquired by Crown Books for about $450,000. Bruce Berman’s Warner Bros.-based Plan B bought screen rights long ago, meaning he paid a hell of a lot less than he would have once Crown named it lead title for fall 1998.

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