Susan Sarandon is in talks to star in “Baby’s in Black,” helmer Brad Silberling’s next pic for Warner Bros. and Bel Air Entertainment. Mark Johnson and Silberling will produce.

Silberling penned the script as his followup to “City of Angels,” and wrote the pivotal role with Sarandon in mind. WB is targeting a January start date.

Set in the early ’70s, the film centers on a family unit cobbled together in the wake of a young woman’s murder: her father, mother, and their son-in-law to be. Emotional chaos ensues when the young man slowly begins to fall for someone new while still living under their roof. WB hopes to make a speedy deal with Sarandon, and then cast young thesps to play the houseguest and the woman who falls in love with him, as she awaits the unlikely return of a boyfriend presumed dead in combat in Vietnam.

Sarandon, who’s about to open alongside Natalie Portman in the Wayne Wang-directed “Anywhere But Here” at Fox 2000, is repped by ICM’s Martha Latrell.

While Silberling has long targeted this film to be his next, he originally expected to do it for DreamWorks (Daily Variety, Aug. 19, 1998) where his Reveal Entertainment is based. But the project recently moved over to WB, where it was championed by Bel Air’s Steve Reuther.

LIT BIZ PICKING UP?: The flaccid literary market might awaken with the prospect of new submissions from big-ticket authors like Michael Crichton and the late Mario Puzo.

Shortly after moving from CAA to AMG, Crichton saw his new time travel novel, “Time Line,” go out to the heads of most major studios — courtesy of his new manager, Michael Ovitz, who’s working closely with Crichton’s longtime lit agents Lynn Nesbit and Mort Janklow.

Crichton’s last novel, “Airframe,” went for $8 million to Disney, but stalled on the runway after director John McTiernan departed after creative disagreements with that studio and the author over “The Thirteenth Warrior.”

At the same time, lawyer Bert Fields is ready to go with the gangster novel “Omerta,” the last literary effort by “Godfather” author Mario Puzo.

There’s a high volume of rumoring about that novel, a family affair in which one brother is an FBI agent, another a mobster. There’s buzz that Puzo’s prose might be quietly polished by another writer before the book comes out next spring or summer, only because the author died before being able to do all the varnishing he otherwise would have.

Belying that is the fact that Puzo was known for turning in strong first drafts, and willed himself to live until he finished this novel. (His serious illness made the reported prospect of him penning “Godfather 4″ unfathomable.)

Fields, who’ll hit the marketplace within the next two weeks with the book, adamantly denied a scenario that’s similar to speculation that WB had director Sydney Pollack tweaking “Eyes Wide Shut” when Stanley Kubrick died after turning in his cut.

The Puzo book is being edited at Random House, Fields said, but all the words belong to Puzo. Fields said the book was terrific, but took an omerta-like oath not to divulge the plot.

GRISHAM DISH: How can a fairly obscure magazine from Oxford, Miss., get a bestselling author like John Grisham to pen a new novel that will originate as a six-part serial in the mag? It helps when the publisher’s name is John Grisham.

The lawyer-turned-novelist-turned-magazine publisher will write “A Painted House” for his Oxford American magazine, a bimonthly that in January will begin carrying the autobiographical coming-of-age tale of a young man in the south. The work then might be turned into a standard novel.

Grisham will write the six installments on deadline, which shouldn’t be too hard since he cranks out a book every year. The mag’s 50,000-print run will increase to 200,000 during the run of the book.

Though Grisham, whose next legal thriller novel is “The Brethren,” has largely turned his back on Hollywood by refusing to sell recent efforts, his appetite might come back with the rapid resuscitation of “Runaway Jury,” which New Regency is speeding toward a deal with director Alfonso Cuaron. The company is also canvassing writers to change the plot.

The project stalled when Joel Schumacher bailed because the tale of jury manipulation hinged on a landmark tobacco lawsuit that wasn’t timely after tobacco lawsuit losses. It’s being changed to a new hotbutton subject: a landmark case against gun manufacturers.

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