NEW YORK — ‘SLEEPERS’ DIRECTOR Barry Levinson has set his cast for the David Mamet-scripted po-litical satire “Wag the Dog.” Joining Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in the New Line Cinema production will be Woody Harrelson, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Catherine O’Hara, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Kirsten Dunst.
Considering the pedigree of the “Dog” cast and director, the film came together quickly and at low upfront cost. Levinson decided to do it in November, and it now has a Monday start date with a 30-day shooting schedule and a budget below $20 million. That’s comparable to the upfront salary of John Travolta, if he winds up playing the prexy in another White House satire, the Mike Nichols-directed “Primary Colors.”
Coming off an acclaimed perf in “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” Harrelson will play a criminally insane soldier drafted to be a national hero by a presidential adviser and Hollywood producer (De Niro and Hoffman, respec-tively). It’s all part of their plan to stage a near-war with Albania to throw the media glare off a presidential sex scandal during an election year. The film will be produced by De Niro’s Tribeca Prods. partner Jane Rosenthal in a co-production between Tribeca, Hoffman’s Punch Prods. and Levinson’s Baltimore Pictures. New Line production president Michael De Luca and senior veep Claire Rudnick Polstein are overseeing it.
SHALHOUB TAKES FLIGHT FROM ‘WINGS’: As his feature career takes wing, “Big Night” star Tony Shalhoub has decided to leave the NBC sitcom “Wings,” on which he’s starred as the quirky Italian cab driver Antonio Scarpacci for six of the show’s eight seasons. “This is it for me. I’m ready to move on,” Shalhoub told Dish. “It has been a good ride, but it’s time to step out into the world. We’re all waiting to see if it comes back or is somehow dissolved, but I’ve made my decision. It feels like it’s all falling into place for me.”
He’ll exit at the completion of the season, and just in time. After all, the Lebanese-born actor is in danger of being typecast for mob movies, after playing ultra-ethnic Italian characters in “Wings” and as the risotto-specialist chef Primo in “Big Night,” for which he was named supporting actor co-winner by the National Society of Film Critics. “The trickiest thing is to unravel the image of Antonio, and while ‘Big Night’ might not have been the smartest way to do that, they are separate and distinct characters,” he said.
Shalhoub exits TV with three diverse movie roles already in the can: the Andrew Niccols directed Columbia film “Gattaca,” Col’s Barry Sonnenfeld directed “Men in Black” and Fox’s Danny Boyle directed “A Life Less Ordi-nary.” “I’m a DNA broker in ‘Gattaca,’ a bizarre alien in human form in ‘Men in Black,’ and a homespun philoso-phizing bartender in ‘A Life Less Ordinary.’ I’m a character man and I just want each part to be a great distance from the last.” Shalhoub will next star at Cambridge ART with wife Brooke Adams in three one-acts by David Mamet called “The Old Neighborhood.” It’s the first stage reteam for the couple since they met while performing “The Heidi Chronicles” in New York.
FARRELLY’S NOVEL DEAL: Peter Farrelly makes most creative moves with his co-director brother Bob. On his own, he has landed a deal for a new novel, “The Comedy Writer.” Main Street/Doubleday won it in an auction held by lit agent Nicholas Ellison, and the publisher will also reissue Farrelly’s first novel, “Outside Providence,” which is going to be a Paramount/MTV pic directed by Michael Corrente (“American Buffalo”).
In between writing and co-directing pics like “Dumb and Dumber,” Farrelly has spent the last nine years writing the autobiographical novel. He once saw a woman ready to jump from a building in Santa Monica, called the cops and got a building security guard to get her down. The cops never came, and the woman left the scene, refusing Farrelly’s offer to talk about her troubles. He called the cops with her license number, but was brushed off, told to track her identity and family through Motor Vehicles.
“When I tried DMV, it was 5:05 the day before Thanksgiving, and they were closing and wouldn’t do it unless I paid them $4, cash or check, no credit card,” he said. “I told them it was an emergency, and they said to show up on Monday with the money.” That proved unnecessary two days later. When Farrelly passed the building again that Friday, the woman’s dead body was on the sidewalk. Farrelly wrote an article about the red tape he encountered in trying to help the woman, and the impact was instant.
“About 35 suicidal people called me over the next few weeks, and I found myself driving all over the state to meet with them, until I finally had to unlist my number.” In the novel, the screenwriter takes in a suicidal starlet and devotes himself to saving her, only to find he’s got to save himself first. CAA will auction screen rights, and Farrelly might write the script.
He and brother Bob are zeroing in on their next film, with a Fox comedy called “Something About Mary” a pos-sibility. The “Dumb and Dumber” duo are also eyeing the Three Stooges movie. The Fox pic has the edge, after Columbia halted Stooge talks over deal points.
BURNS BROADENING?: While Edward Burns’ next project will likely be directing and starring in his script “Long Time, Nothing New,” Dish hears Steven Spielberg may draft Burns for soldier duty to join Tom Hanks in the cast of the Spielberg-directed World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan” for Paramount/DreamWorks. Burns is currently casting his own pic, which will be produced by Ted Hope and Michael Nozick, his producers on “She’s the One.” Several studios are vying to distribute.