Clive Cussler, author of more than a dozen seafaring adventure yarns, has steered clear of Hollywood since the release of 1980′s adaptation of his novel “Raise the Titanic,” which he calls “awful from beginning to end.”

But the flood gates have opened.

At Cannes, Crusader Ent., a company owned by Financier Philip Anshutz, announced it had tied up rights to all 14 of his novels featuring intelligence agent Dirk Pitt.

If Crusader manages to turn that series into a franchise, as prexy Howard Baldwin hopes, Cussler will see one of the biggest paydays of any writer whose work has gone to the bigscreen. The backend on the option for each book is said to be $10 million. Cussler also will have script and casting approval.

The first in the series, “Sahara,” set up at Paramount via Crusader’s first-look deal at the studio, is being adapted by Jim Hart (“Tuck Everlasting,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”).

Cussler’s nonfiction book on shipwrecks, “The Sea Hunters,” has also been optioned. Nova Scotia-based shingle, Eco-Nova Prods., is developing a 19-episode TV docu series based on the book. Show will be distributed by History TV in Canada, National Geographic in the U.S. and internationally by National Geographic Channel Intl which is in 129 countries and more than 100 million homes. In the vein of Arthur C. Clarke, Cussler will personally introduce each episode.

Though Cussler has been approached by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, George Clooney and other industry heavyweights seeking to option his fiction, he says studios have never been willing to grant him any control over the process.

“They’ve dealt with weirdo authors before and weren’t too keen to give out casting and script approval,” Cussler said.

But the Crusader deal wouldn’t have happened without the unlikely intervention of Lowell Weicker, former Republican senator and governor of Connecticutt and a friend of Baldwin’s since the days when Baldwin owned the Hartford Whalers hockey team. Weicker has descended below the waves with Cussler in a research submarine.

Conventional wisdom in Hollywood may hold that granting script and casting approval to an author is the death knell of a development deal. It’s far from clear at this point whether Crusader will actually get the franchise off the ground.

But Cussler’s agent, Peter Lampack, says the process is moving quickly. “There are very few hurdles left to go creatively,” he says.

SINGLE CELL: Michael Stipe’s Single Cell Pictures has optioned Brady Udall’s just published first novel, “The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint.”

Udall was recently included in the Village Voice’s annual roundup of “Writers on the Verge.” The novel, repped by the Watkins Loomis Agency and WMA’s Bill Contardi, is a picaresque story in the mold of John Irving, about a half-Apache youth who is run over by a mail truck. Shipped to a hospital, he begins a new life that eventually lands him with a Mormon foster family.

Stipe and Single Cell partner Sandy Stern, who are shopping the book to directors before trying to set it up at a studio, optioned the book with private funds.

“It’s hard to set up a book right now without a star or director attached,” says Stern. “We’d rather ante up and option it, then decide if we can find a buyer for it.”

The shingle’s biggest production to date, “Being John Malkovich,” cost $10 million, says Stern, and this project lends itself to a pic that’s bigger in scope. “This is a self-contained epic,” says Stern, befitting “an A-list director and a great movie star.”

POCKET PLAN: Pocket Books is reorganizing.

There will now be two arms of the venerable imprint: a hardcover imprint called PB Press, headed by Judith Curr, and a mass market and trade paperback imprint to be headed by Louise Burke.

In joining Pocket, Burke ankles her job as publisher at New American Library.

In January, Pocket Books was combined with the Simon & Schuster Trade Division to form the S&S Adult Publishing Group under prexy Carolyn K. Reidy.

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