Nichols nails HBO deal

Helmer to begin developing longform TV immediately

Mike Nichols, whose HBO adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit” premieres Saturday, has made a first-look deal with the network to direct and produce longform television. The deal is the only one the pay web has with a director.

Nichols will begin developing projects there immediately, and HBO is negotiating with “Wit” executive producer Cary Brokaw to join Nichols in the venture. Nichols scripted the play adaptation with star Emma Thompson, who plays a brilliant English literary scholar whose diagnosis of terminal ovarian cancer triggers a personal awakening as she ponders her mortality during grueling drug treatment of the disease.

On the feature side, Nichols has been developing a remake of “Kind Hearts and Coronets” at Universal with a script from his former partner Elaine May and the hope that his “Birdcage” star Robin Williams will play the eight roles that Alec Guinness did in the original 1948 comedy.

Nichols’ next venture is the stage, where he’s preparing to direct in Central Park a star-studded summer adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” toplined by Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney, Hank Azaria, John Goodman and Christopher Walken. Performances begin July 24.

PLATT TO “WEST WING”: While some actors have been taking extra work in case of a summer strike, Oliver Platt is among the most prolific prestrike thesps in the business. Since his NBC series “Deadline” was scratched, Platt has starred with Michael Douglas in the Gary Fleder-directed “Don’t Say a Word” for New Regency; starred with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo in the David Goyer-directed New Line film “Zig Zag”; and joined Snipes in the Cari Skogland-directed “Liberty Stands Still” for Lions Gate. Next week, he joins Edward Burns and Elijah Wood in the Burns-directed pic “Ash Wednesday.” Platt has even found time to return to the small screen, joining the hit NBC drama “West Wing” in the role of White House counsel Oliver Babish. Right now, Platt’s commitment is for a four-episode arc.

CHASIN’ JASON: After signing a deal for the 20th Century Fox TV/ABC sitcom “Bob Patterson,” former “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander has just been set to join Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black in the Peter and Bobby Farrelly-directed “Shallow Hal” at Fox. The Farrellys badly wanted Alexander to play the equally shallow best friend of Hal (Black), who becomes the rival for the affections of a rather frumpy girl whom Hal sees as the visage of a beauty (Paltrow). It initially appeared that the pilot would knock him out of the role but the fact that both film and series are Fox-based helped, and a compromise was reached. Alexander will start the film, take a week or two off to shoot the pilot, then rejoin the Farrellys, who moved the schedule to make it possible. His deal was closed by WMA and attorney Michael Gendler.

BIZ DEALS WITH STRIKE: As dealmaking slows because of a looming summer strike, discussion has turned to ways to keep active even in a labor stoppage. The March 31 SAG board meeting will tell indie producers whether they’ll be able to secure waivers for summer shoots, and potential offshore shoots with non-American thesps are beginning to mobilize. One is “Highbinders,” an action comedy that has Jackie Chan and Rowan Atkinson as possible stars, with Reggie Hudlin the possible director. The film, about a Chinese immigration officer who is killed and returns from the dead with superpowers, would shoot in Australia with Hong Kong financing and no U.S. distribution. Among the tiny offshore pics mobilizing is “Garage Days,” a film written by and to be directed in Australia by Alex Proyas. Pic, about a garage band, is set up at Fox Searchlight. SAG waivers won’t automatically signal an influx in summer indie production, said several producers and distribution execs. Shooting without domestic distribution has become daunting, because studios sometimes don’t bite, even with decent casts, and numerous well-cast films have gone right to video and pay TV channels because distribbers fear they won’t recoup marketing costs.

A far-fetched way for writers to work surfaced during a meeting last week between WGA leaders and agents. The ten-percenters were made hopeful as John Wells downplayed the prospect of a strike, likening the WGA negotiations to the haggling the agents do every day. A few agents there were intrigued by the notion that a writer who owns or buys land in Canada could declare himself a landed immigrant and work on programming not designed for U.S. airing, though a WGA spokeswoman said the Guild has been working with its Canadian counterparts to close those loopholes. Also awaiting clarification from the unions are publicists. While they’ll send clients to Cannes to promote a movie, they seemed ready to resist pressure by studios to junket films not due out until fourth quarter. All of these issues have the parties involved uncomfortable because they test loyalties to unions, and everyone Dish spoke to seemed to hope these scenarios would be made moot by a timely settlement.

SHUFFLING THE DECK: After quietly trimming its client roster by about 100 over the past few months, Writers & Artists Agency has begun to aggressively restock its talent list. The agency has, in recent weeks, signed Adam Beach, Yancy Butler, Vivica A. Fox, Illeana Douglas, Kelli Garner (“Bully”), Lori Heuring (“Nailed”), Brad Renfro, Annabella Sciorra and Colm Meaney.

DISHINGS: Warren Beatty laid in a voiceover last week for “Town and Country,” meaning that the long-delayed and much-reported-upon New Line film is done, finally, and will be released in mid-April. Given the press coverage, the temptation is to liken the tinkering to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But insiders say “Town and Country” isn’t a terrible film, but might not be good enough to overcome bad hype reminiscent of “Waterworld.” That film, despite going way over budget, and having director Kevin Reynolds fired in the editing room ultimately broke even, a claim that cannot be made by countless films which fail and lose money quietly. … After guesting on “Will and Grace” and appearing Wednesday on “Once and Again” as Sela Ward’s schizophrenic brother, Patrick Dempsey seems to be adapting well to TV, and might make a more permanent entry starring with Tom Skeritt in the NBC pilot “Chestnut Hill.”

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