‘Orient Express’ on track

NEW YORK — In his first small screen deal, producer Alan Ladd Jr. has put on track a syndicated series version of “The Orient Express” with a 22-episode commitment. Scribes Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (“The Commitments”) are aboard to write the pilot and supervise the show.

In between moves to mount a bunch of star-studded studio features, Ladd has been shepherding the series and got the Germany-based Global Films to commit $25 million to finance 22-hourlong segments. The show will be done in conjunction with the Orient Express Co., with the benefit of using the train, as well as its 29 luxury hotels throughout Europe, Australia and Asia. Most of the interiors will be shot in Luxembourg.

“The whole idea of using the train and hotels intrigued me, and the only reason we have to wait until April is that the train shuts down from Nov. 15 through April 15,” said Ladd. Casting will get under way shortly for the ensemble, topped by a European playboy who’s a troubleshooter for the luxury rail line, and a female cop with whom he engages in a “Moonlighting”-type relationship. Global Films will control foreign TV rights for their money, and exec producers Ladd and Martin Barab will look to add a domestic TV outlet shortly.

On the feature side, Ladd is playing the same game as other feature producers, hoping to hook a star and director that will get a film greenlit before the possible summer WGA/SAG strike. His best bet is “Day After Tomorrow,” an adaptation of the Alan Folsom bestseller in which Pierce Brosnan is considering starring from a script by Clement and La Frenais. Ladd and director Jon Amiel are awaiting a rewrite on the Les Bohem-scripted “North of Cheyenne” at Paramount.

Definitely not making a pre-strike start is the long-awaited adaptation of the Pat Conroy novel “Beach Music,” a film expected to star Brad Pitt. Pitt’s shooting “Spy Game” and then “Ocean’s Eleven” before the summer. Ladd’s looking for a director the actor’s comfortable with, hoping to start filming next fall. “Beach Music” was a sprawling story that has taken years to get right in script form, a feat finally accomplished by Pulitzer Prize-winning “Kentucky Cycles” playwright Robert Schenkkan. Also in the future are two scripts by Randall Wallace, who wrote the Ladd-produced Oscar winner “Braveheart” and most recently “Pearl Harbor.” Ladd’s producing both the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “With Wings as Eagles” and “The Hand of God,” the latter of which Wallace hopes to direct.

DOWNEY RETURN: Despite his arrest for drug possession last weekend, Robert Downey Jr. will be back at work this week, as scheduled, and will finish his final two episodes of the Fox series “Ally McBeal,” sources said. Downey already shot the eight episodes to which he originally committed, but creator David Kelley added two more segments because his stint was going so well. The extra episodes are the ones still left to shoot.

While addicts slip and Downey has paid dearly for his last two relapses, his most recent descent is particularly disheartening given how strongly he’d embraced his recovery program and a program of personal discipline. He had even begun lecturing other addicts as part of his Walden House recovery program. Downey, who returned home after making bail, has returned to that recovery program, said sources close to him. As to continuing a career comeback in the Julia Roberts pic “America’s Sweethearts” or a stage date in the Mel Gibson-directed “Hamlet,” that is unclear, and to be determined by a judge Downey will face in late December.

PERCENTERY SKIRMISH: William Morris has joined former client Kelsey Grammer in appealing a U.S. District Court judgment given the Artists Agency. Michael Livingston, a partner in that boutique percentery, said he’s shocked that WMA is continuing to withhold $82,554 which a SAG arbitrator and federal court said is owed.

The dispute’s had a longer run than some hit series, with Grammer continuing to battle over commissions stemming from deals made while the “Frasier” star was repped by that agency from 1993-1996. Grammer was ordered by a SAG arbitrator to pay $2,034,391 to his former reps, an order which the court upheld. Livingston said he wasn’t surprised to see Grammer appeal. But WMA’s decision to press a case in conjunction with a client it no longer represents is a disappointing development, he said. “That they would be party to the vindictive attitude that Kelsey has demonstrated is a surprise,” Livingston said. “The old William Morris, when Abe Lasvogel and Stan Kamen were there, would not have taken this kind of position. There’s no way the court is going to overturn this decision, and Kelsey has been punishing us by dragging this process out over two and one half years. I’m amazed that William Morris, which at one point told our attorneys they would abide by the court decision, haven’t. I can’t imagine $82,000 can mean a lot to them, but I can tell you it means a lot to us. For them to go through the SAG arbitration, the court and continue to refuse is disturbing to us.”

Livingston said WMA vice chairman Jerry Katzman once told him the agency expected to pay but acknowledged that “what one says off the cuff doesn’t always hold true.” Livingston fears that Grammer will press the case even if he strikes out again on this appeal. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelsey tries to take this to the Supreme Court; it has become a crusade for him. But this has created a strain for our business. He sincerely believes we are not entitled to the money, but he’s never mentioned we negotiated these deals for him and that he paid us for a number of years. He said we didn’t get him the part of Frasier, that Paramount developed that series, but we negotiated the deal and we represented him when he went through a lot of personal problems during the ‘Cheers’ years and even into ‘Frasier.’ ”

A WMA spokesman responded: “The final determination as to whether the funds in question are due the Artists Agency is subject to further court proceedings. William Morris will be guided by whatever the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decides.”

Grammer’s attorney, Martin Singer, denied his client was trying to punish the boutique agency. Rather, Grammer is steadfast that he doesn’t owe the commissions because of SAG rule violations made by the Artists Agency around the time Grammer went to UTA for feature representation but continued with Artists Agency for TV dealing. “It’s our position that Kelsey and William Morris will be vindicated by the appellate court; this is not a question of somebody trying to punish somebody else,” said Singer. “If we didn’t see substantial merit, we wouldn’t do this. If you check Kelsey Grammer’s record, you’ll see he’s not a litigious person, but rather one who honors his obligations. This is a unique situation.”

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