DiCaprio's hesitancy clears way for Matt

Matt Damon has struck a deal to mount the Columbia Pictures/Miramax Films co-production “All the Pretty Horses,” the Billy Bob Thornton-directed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the companies confirmed Tuesday.

Leonardo DiCaprio, the other actor of the moment, had been in talks as late as Monday night for the starring role, but when it looked like the “Titanic” star was going to delay his commitment, Columbia/Miramax went to Damon, who sources said is a fan of the book and has long had his eye on the role.

Damon is understood to have committed within 25 minutes. The deal will pay the recent Oscar-winner more than $5 million — the biggest payday of his young career.

Damon takes on the role of a young Texan who rides into Mexico in 1949 with a buddy. When he falls for the daughter of a wealthy ranch owner, the man has the young cowboy thrown into a Mexican prison, but the resilient lad exacts justice and becomes a man by the time he returns to Texas.

The film is stacked with Academy Award-winning writers: Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for his adaptation of “The Silence of the Lambs,” penned this adaptation; and Thornton, who took home the gold man in 1996 for his “Sling Blade” script, tackles his first helming stint since that film. Mike Nichols, who originally was to direct the pic, will produce.

Nichols developed the project at Columbia and shifted to producer when his “Primary Colors” star Thornton became passionate about taking the helm.

Because Miramax, which distributed “Sling Blade,” had the option on Thornton’s next film, Miramax became an equal financial partner in “Horses.”

Though Damon had no second thoughts about committing to the film, the studios had to push back production to accommodate the actor’s burgeoning slate of starring roles.

Had DiCaprio signed on, the film was to begin production this fall, but now will start in late 1998 or early 1999, following Damon’s stint in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” for Paramount and Miramax.

Since gaining worldwide acclaim from “Titanic,” and despite eight-figure offers, sources said DiCaprio is being incredibly choosy about the roles he is considering as his follow-up to the $1.4 billion box office smash.

But with a finite number of quality scripts out there for young leading men, — and “Horses” is said to be one of the best star vehicles around — other actors like Damon are quick to seize the roles.

Damon and Ben Affleck recently won an Oscar for writing “Good Will Hunting,” in which the two also starred and Damon garnered a best actor Oscar nomination as well.

Since “Good Will,” Damon’s dance card has included John Dahl’s “Rounders,” from which he segued to Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” currently in production.

Damon is repped by Creative Artists Agency.

(Michael Fleming in New York contributed to this report.)

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