Ledger’s ‘Knight’ watch; ‘Carlo’ is back after 28

LEDGER HAS ‘KNIGHT’ DUTY: Columbia Pictures has cast Heath Ledger to play the lead in “A Knight’s Tale,” which Brian Helgeland wrote and will direct next April.

In the medieval pic, Ledger will play a peasant squire who takes the identity of his master when the knight suffers an untimely demise. The squire makes his way up the jousting circuit, even though by birth he should never be able to reach such nobility.

The role is considered a starmaking opportunity, and Columbia found its knight in shining armor by watching dailies of “The Patriot,” the Revolutionary War pic that Roland Emmerich is now shooting in the Carolinas. Ledger plays Mel Gibson’s son, and the two battle the British side by side.

Australian import Ledger, 20, starred in the Fox series “Roar,” playing a character reminiscent of Gibson’s William Wallace in “Braveheart.” That got Ledger the lead in “10 Things I Hate About You,” which led to “Patriot.” He is repped by CAA.

CARLO’S SECOND LIFE: Some 28 years after making his movie debut as Carlo in “The Godfather,” Gianni Russo has decided to be a full-time actor.

Russo can be seen alongside Al Pacino in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” and just got a supporting role in the Curtis Hanson-directed “Family Man.”

Back when Paramount declared plans to cast unknowns for “Godfather,” Russo, a Vegas jewelry store owner, filmed a test for three roles: Michael and Sonny Corleone and Carlo, the son-in-law who beats his wife and sells out the family. Russo wore producer Al Ruddy down with persistence to get the Carlo role.

“Not being an actor, I made myself useful to Francis Coppola because I knew Staten Island,” Russo recalled. “They couldn’t find the right place for the Corleone family compound. My grandfather was a gardener at that house on Longfellow Road, and I knew the people. They got the compound cheap — all the guy wanted was a new roof. I got them the band that played at my first wedding — Nino Morelli — to play at Carlo’s wedding, and they used the same pastry chef.”

Russo said that as a non-pro, he got the cold shoulder from most of his castmates, though Marlon Brando eventually warmed up to him. “I had this Bentley and a driver … Brando calls me into his makeup room, asks me if the studio provided the car. I tell him it’s my car and he asks if I mind driving him to work everyday. He taught me how to act, and coached me through the toughest scene, where Michael tells me I have to answer for Santino.”

Despite the high-profile debut, Russo acted in pics like “The Freshman” and “Striptease” only as a hobby. “Then I had this tremendous setback in my life: I came to a woman’s rescue when she was being brutally cut up by a customer in a Latin club in my casino. He broke a champagne bottle and jammed it in her face. Nobody jumped in except me, because she would have died. I got 100-plus stitches myself and wound up killing him.”

Russo wrote a script about the ordeal that turned into the 1996 Showtime pic “For Which He Stands.” The experience made him rethink his casual attitude toward acting, especially when another big chance presented itself.

“I stayed friendly with Pacino, and when we got together, he told me about this football movie.” Russo arranged Pacino and Oliver Stone to meet his pal, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bolan; on that weekend trip, Pacino decided to base his character on head coach Mike Shanahan. Returning from that trip on the Warner jet, “I see they’re happy and, me being a businessman, I say to Oliver, ‘What about me?’ Oliver says, ‘What are you, an actor?’ Al tells him I played Carlo and he offers me a role as team vice president with one line. I took it, and it turned into four months of work. I even helped get them use of the Orange Bowl.

“Here I am 28 years later with a big movie with Al and a major director,” said Russo. “This time, even if I have to live in a tent to do it, I’m going to make it as an actor.”

CASTINGS: Columbia is chasing Pierce Brosnan to topline its adaptation of “The Tailor of Panama,” which John Boorman has adapted and will direct. Dish hears that Col wants the thesp to star with Geoffrey Rush and Jamie Lee Curtis. No deals yet, sez the studio … Director Jon Avnet is hoping that “Shakespeare in Love” star Joseph Fiennes and Universal can get into production his long aborning pic “Uprising.” The Paul Brickman-scripted pic concerns the group of Polish teens who defied Nazi SS troops in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. U’s in talks to come aboard.

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