Sean Penn and Marlon Brando will produce a feature on the life of former Black Panthers defense minister Geronimo Pratt and have brought in “ER” star Eriq La Salle to direct it.David Johnson (“The Drop Squad”) will write the screenplay, which La Salle hopes to put into production next April while he is on hiatus from the fifth season of TV’s top-rated show. Penn and Brando will endeavor to set it up when they get a script and a cast, of which they’ll definitely be a part. While most of his “ER” co-stars supplement their medical rounds with feature acting jobs, La Salle has been slowly building toward an eventual career as a director. He began by financing a short film and cutting it in his trailer between “ER” takes. That landed him “Rebound,” the HBO biopic of tragic Harlem playground hoop legend Earl Manigault. Which leads to Penn and Brando. “Sean called and said he was a big fan of ‘Rebound’ that he and Marlon were involved in a Geronimo Pratt project and could I come to Marlon’s house and talk about it,” said La Salle. “They describe the project, and say, ‘We are at your disposal, we’ll act in this project as much or as little as you want us, and we’ll help you get a first-rate cast.’ … I’d like to think I was very cool on the outside, but inside I was like a nervous schoolgirl.” Equally intriguing to La Salle was the subject. Pratt did 25 years of hard time for a murder he steadfastly maintained he did not commit, saying he had been framed by an FBI that considered him subversive. Much information has surfaced to back up his claim, and his conviction was overturned last year. Pratt had been a longrange reconnaissance expert with the 82nd Airborne during the Vietnam War, and used those skills to teach members of the Panthers how to handle themselves in shootouts with police. “Here was a guy trained by the military who came home and became another type of soldier who brought that knowledge back to the black community,” La Salle said, adding that the Panthers “were no angels either; there was infighting, brother killing (or trying to frame) brother, and guys getting killed in huge shootouts with the police. And the head of the FBI personally was trying to bring Geronimo down, which led to blatant abuses of the law at the time of the killing.” La Salle called Pratt an “honorable antihero” and feels the volatile climate that hatched the Panthers has never fully been explored on film. Penn will star in Woody Allen’s next film, but then will cut down on his screen time to concentrate on producing and directing, possibly handling both those duties with Brando starring in “Autumn of the Patriarch.” Penn found seed money to develop the project, but the Pratt connection is Brando; he knows the ex-Panther. Although La Salle will find a way to suture significant roles into the script for both Penn and Brando, he said they’re in agreement that the film should not be driven by white stars. La Salle just wrapped acting “Mind Prey,” an ABC adaptation of a mystery novel series directed by D.J. Caruso, who partners with La Salle and Butch Johnson in the production company Humble Journey. He’s repped by Gersh’s Lorrie Bartlett. NORM STORMS U: Days after MGM orphaned the Norm Macdonald comedy “Ballbusted,” Universal has come to the rescue. In what will amount to little more than a studio logo switch, U will finance and distribute the film, which remains on track to shoot in Vancouver in four weeks. MGM ankled June 23, days after the Macdonald comedy “Dirty Work” bombed at the box office. While it seemed momentarily dire for a comedy that marks the directorial debut of screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, several suitors stepped up to the $15 million comedy. U’s a good fit; one of the studio’s highest-profile films is the Alexander/Karaszewski-scripted biopic “Man on the Moon” with Milos Forman and Jim Carrey; and “Ballbusted” co-star Dave Chappelle is U-based. More importantly, U is the home studio of Robert Simonds, who produced such hits there as “Happy Gilmore.” The studio let slip Simonds’ last comedy “The Wedding Singer,” which became a hit at New Line. Simonds and Brillstein-Grey got U to step up quickly enough to keep the film on track. BACK BEHIND THE CAMERA FOR DE NIRO?: After making his directing debut with 1993′s “A Bronx Tale,” Robert De Niro might finally be ready to move back behind the camera. Tribeca Films, which De Niro runs with Jane Rosenthal, has tapped “Crimson Tide” scribe Michael Schiffer to write an untitled project that De Niro wants to direct as well as star in. Neither De Niro, Tribeca nor MGM/UA — where the producer is based — would comment. The project is shrouded in secrecy, most appropriate for a project that insiders said involves spies. De Niro will next star for MGM in “Flawless,” the film Joel Schumacher will direct from his own script. De Niro and Schiffer are repped by CAA.
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