Gibson plays bard card

NEW YORK — Mel Gibson has committed to direct Robert Downey Jr. as the troubled prince in a stage run of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” with performances to begin in January. It will be the first Shakespeare stage performance for Downey.

The pair starred together in “Air America” and have remained friendly ever since. They recently began plotting the stage venture, and have scheduled a Sept. 30 reading to mount a star-studded cast. At the same time, talks are underway to secure an L.A. theater in which to stage the production. It will be the first directing effort for Gibson since he won the Oscar for “Braveheart.” It is also a role Gibson himself played onscreen when he starred in a Franco Zeffirelli-directed “Hamlet” film in 1991. That was the first project produced by Icon, the company Gibson partners in with Bruce Davey. Icon might be involved in a producing capacity in the play, but those details are now just being worked out after Gibson and Downey committed to the unusual project.

The stage date is another high-profile but unexpected venture for Downey, the screen star who, just days after being paroled from state prison for a probation violation, accepted David E. Kelley’s offer to play Calista Flockhart’s love interest in the first eight episodes of “Ally McBeal.” The producers would like Downey to extend his stay, even become a regular. While the show’s family atmosphere in its Manhattan Beach compound is very compatible with Downey’s recovery program Walden House, Downey’s also in demand to return to films. Sources said he’s not yet decided on a longer “Ally” stay, and he could presumably do episodes while rehearsing for “Hamlet” into the fall. Downey got out of prison just in time for the rerelease of the Curtis Hanson-directed “Wonder Boys,” the film he starred in with Michael Douglas which will be back in theaters to help Paramount position for Oscar consideration.

Gibson is repped by ICM’s Ed Limato, Downey by Limato and Nick Styne.

ANXIOUS MOMENTS FOR CAST: While “The Sopranos” is HBO’s signature show, the prison drama “Oz” is certainly the most unique dramatic series ever to appear on TV. Part of that difference is obvious: no network has before been comfy with the graphic depiction of prison rapes. But what’s more remarkable is the unsparing manner in which creator Tom Fontana kills off the show’s stars, sometimes several an episode. It began in the pilot, when Fontana brought in his “Homicide” star Jon Seda, set his character up as lead in the episode, until he was lit on fire and killed in the final moments.

“I adore Jon, but right away I wanted to break that rule that you don’t kill your leading man, especially in the pilot,” said Fontana. “HBO got it right away, and since then, I have been relatively fearless in killing people off. It does keep the audience on its toes.” It also keeps the cast unnerved with every episode Fontana writes. “When the script for each episode gets published, the actors grab it and turn right to the end, to see who’s dead,” said Fontana. “Actually, I try not to surprise them, hiring some actors and telling them they’ll last five episodes, and how it’ll go. But every once in awhile, I’ll be writing and say, ‘Oh, this guy’s gotta die.”’ The most recent electric exit belonged to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, an original castmember whose prominence grew to where his heroin-hooked drug dealer character became the series focal point — until he expired, gushing blood in a fatal knife fight. “Adewale wanted to do “Mummy 2,” and rather than have him fly back from Morocco and London, it made more sense to kill him,” said Fontana. “He said, ‘why can’t I get wounded, carried out and come back later?’ But he finally resolved himself to it. God love all the actors I’ve killed off. Some actors might be inclined to say, ‘fuck you, I’m not doing this,’ but it has become a badge of honor to see who gets the best death scene.”

It’s made actors reluctant to ask for parole to do other projects. “Kirk Acevedo was offered the HBO Tom Hanks project ‘Band of Brothers,’ but came to me and said, if you’re going to kill me, I won’t take the job.’ We worked it out and his character escaped. He’s coming back, but just because I let one guy off the hook doesn’t mean I can have prisoners escaping all the time.”

Fontana and cast have completed eight more episodes to air starting January, then wait for HBO topper Chris Albrecht to make the life-death decision on the series that Fontana makes weekly for his cast. A growing cult following and rising ratings — despite its 11 p.m. timeslot — might well lengthen Fontana’s prison stretch.

A SCRIBE GROWS IN BROOKLYN: At 24, Brooklyn-born Matt Cirulnick has become a working screenwriter, but it wasn’t long since his writing was done with spray paint cans. Cirulnick’s had a crazy ride in Hollywood, and his success started with a script he wrote about his passion for graffiti art, “Heist-one.” Not from a wealthy family, he got himself into Dartmouth and while his buddies became investment bankers, Cirulnick took a job as a lowly production assistant. After giving that script to a Dartmouth alum doing the same thing, Cirulnick got a call from another alum, Eric Eisner, son of Disney chief Michael Eisner.

Wanting to produce the film, Eisner invited the scribe to Hollywood, and before he knew it, Cirulnick was living with the Eisner family, which sent him to producer Jerry Bruckheimer to learn how to pitch projects. “It was pretty trippy, us bouncing ideas off Jerry, him telling us, here’s how to do it, what to talk about, what not to talk about.” Shortly after, Cirulnick had a deal writing “Paid in Full,” a Dimension drama about a Harlem drug dealer which just began production starring Mekhi Phifer and directed by Charles Stone (best known for creating the “Wasssup” Budweiser campaign).

Cirulnick then rewrote “Total Recall 2” for Dimension and rewrote the remake of “Full Contact” to be produced by Chris Lee. Cirulnick’s negotiating with NBC Productions on an overall series deal, and he’s scripting “The Slim Shady Show” for, 26 five-minute shorts voiced by rapper Eminem, based on his album alter ego. Cirulnick, who has moved back to Gotham, also expects to team with Eisner on that graffiti script, long after trading the neon spray paint cans for a far more lucrative use of his words. Cirulnick is repped by UTA.

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