Thornton slings 3-pic deal

GOOD MORNING: Harvey Weinstein inked “Sling Blade’s” Billy Bob Thornton for three pix that he will write, direct and star in, as on “Blade.” The first is “Miles From Nowhere,” a buddy (three) comedy. The ever-enthusiastic Harvey is not only advertising Billy Bob as an Oscar contender for Miramax’s “Blade” but Weinstein has been busy touting Thornton to other filmmakers to use his talents. He even set up a screening of “Sling” for Sylvester Stallone to promote Thornton as a director. The modest Thornton told me he is touched by Weinstein’s general generosity and by totally unsolicited industry reaction: phone calls, letters, etc. from people he doesn’t know. They’ve included Sherry Lansing, Sean Daniel, Paul Mazursky, Adrian Lyne, F. Murray Abraham, Sam Elliott, Harry Dean Stanton, Julia Roberts, Kevin Costner. “I’m just overwhelmed,” he admitted to me. “And I can’t even allow myself to call them my peers!” A film in which he’d also act, well as direct, write for Miramax is “East End.” He says he’d only direct scripts he’s written, but won’t necessarily act in all of ’em. Since “Sling,” he’s starred in Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn,” “Home Grown” directed by Steve Gyllenhall, “The Apostle” for director Robert Duvall, and Arthur Hiller’s “An Alan Smithee Film.” He next stars in “Simple Plan” for John Boorman who, says Billy Bob, “is one of my heroes. I may be too nervous to do it.” It shoots in Minnesota in Feb., with Bill Paxton hopefully as Billy’s brother. … Weinstein next starts “Price Below Rubies” with “Jerry Maguire” costar Renee Zellweger playing an orthodox Brooklyn Jew. Boaz Yakin directs. … Weinstein looked at the rushes of his scene in the “Alan Smithee” film, showed it to his friend Robert De Niro, who said of Harvey’s first (and last) acting, “Stiffness works for you!” They had to pick up De Niro from the floor, where he was last seen laughing.

WELL, THEY KNEW IT WOULDN’T BE EASY — I mean Jim Cameron and the makers of 20th’s epic “Titanic.” The winds that swept through L.A. recently also took aim on the waters off Rosarito Beach, Baja, where 20th has built its version of the ship and a studio on land as well. Students of the catastrophe recall the seas were glass-like, in an eerie calm, the night when it sank. Well, the winds off Mexico and its waves destroyed that calm illusion. And Cameron is dedicated to making the movie accurately. Today, 300 of the cast return to work in a giant ballroom scene. Among those resuming roles are Kathy Bates, who as Molly Brown is over her guaranteed time. Also returning for the only fictional family in the movie are Frances Fisher as the Philly society mother of Kate Winslet, who is on board with her fiancee Billy Zane and new suitor Leonardo Di Caprio. An exuberant Fisher tells me the company is comfortably housed in gated communities near the location and its newly built “studio.” She has a three bedroom house where daughter (by Clint Eastwood) Francesca (3) can visit. Fisher says Cameron is “the most energetic director I’ve ever worked for, involved with everything — first on the set, last to leave.” She says the set is “awesome”: one ship in a giant tank on the beach has been tilted 35 degrees for the start of the sinking scenes. With Warren Littlefield’s announcement Saturday that “Wings” would not be returning (after eight seasons), co-star Tim Daly told me, “I have mixed feelings, like when you graduate from college.” He says the cast “used to make jokes: maybe we should create some controversy (of which there wasn’t any) so we could get more press.” It was a happy troupe. Daly, who biked between the series and bigscreen (“The Associate” with Whoopi Goldberg last year), says he now will have time to put into motion projects of his Wandering Bark banner. He heads to Sundance again this year to observe. “Wings” tapes its final show March 18. The execs and creative team told the cast of Littlefield’s announcement Thursday.

STEVEN SPIELBERG IS GOING to buy the Dodgers and give it to the Academy,” said Red Buttons Looking at the Oscars these observances from Ron Howard: “As a fan (and I am one), this year I’ve enjoyed the diversity of movies and potential nominees.” … While Gil Cates is busy producing the Oscars, his wife Dr. Judith Reichman, author of “I’m Too Young to Get Old” (Random House), hosts a two-part PBSpecial: “More Straight Talk on Menopause and Women’s Health” to preem nationwide in March as part of PBS membership pledge drive. Nancy Hult Ganis and Patricia Perini produce Victor Drai, the restaurateur success story of ’96 with two terrif boites, will open a third eatery in Las Vegas and a boutique on Brighton in BevHills where wares such as his (delicious!) Drai’s cookies will be for sale. … Ron Smith celebrates the 20th anni of his LookAlikes with a mock Inaugural Ball Jan. 20 at the Century Club (Century City) with his versions of Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Tipper and Al Gore, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Di, Queen Elizabeth, Ronald Reagan, Burt Reynolds and the Pope. What, no Alan Smithee? … Performing at the Inaugural’s Arkansas Ball Jan. 20 at the D.C. Convention Center: Paige O’Hara (now at the Flamingo Hilton), singing the title tune from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” movie in which she supplied the voice of Belle. Also at the Arkansas Ball doings: Trisha Yearwood, Michael McDonald and Bruce Hornsby. … Bill Maher will guest at the “Gathering of Angels,” Jan. 31 at La Villa Consolata to benefit Interval Houses crisis shelters for victims of domestic violence. Larry King m.c’s. and honorees are Geraldo Rivera, Bill Williams and Carol Anne Williams. The Playboy Foundation sponsors. Ducats: (310) 430-0804.

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