Howard eyes Mexican tale ‘Eagle’ for U

Director Ron Howard, who recently ankled “The Alamo,” has set his sights on another seminal moment in Mexican history.

Universal, with Imagine partners Howard and Brian Grazer, have made a preemptive buy of “The Serpent and the Eagle,” the story of how Spanish conqueror Cortez flattened the Aztec nation and plundered its riches with the help of an Aztec princess-turned-slave.

Scripted by Hans Beimler and Robert Wolfe, the drama highlights one of Mexican history’s most controversial figures, who’s still thought in some quarters to be a traitor. Malinali, a slave woman given by an Aztec tribe as a peace offering to the Cortez, became highly valuable to the conquerer when he realized she spoke Spanish as well as the Aztec languages. She became his translator, lover and adviser.

U production prexy Mary Parent will shepherd the project with Beimler repped by CAA, Wolfe by W&A.

Howard has not chosen his next directing project, as he and Grazer continue producing “The Alamo” with John Lee Hancock at the helm. Howard has several Imagine-developed possibilities, along with “The Burial,” for which he’s courted Denzel Washington, and the Universal/Imagine pic “Cinderella Man,” which would have Russell Crowe playing Depression era boxer and folk hero Jim Braddock.

The latter could get a momentum boost because it looks like Crowe will be unexpectedly available. He is committed to star in the Ridley Scott-directed Fox epic “Tripoli,” but that pic’s early 2003 start date has been pushed until 2004.

“BROTHER SAM” GET PUSH: Scripters Robert Pulcini and Shari Berman have been hired to adapt “Brother Sam,” a film about the late manic comic Sam Kinison that’s based on the book written by his brother Bill and Steve Delsohn. Pic’s being produced by David Permut and Tom Shadyac as a potential directing vehicle for the latter, with Steve Longi co-producing and Shady Acres’ Michael Bostick shepherding the pic. Pulcini and Berman just directed the Paul Giamatti-Hope Davis pic “American Splendor” for Good Machine and HBO, but they’re better known on the docu front. They directed the quirky Hollywood pics “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s” and “The Young and the Dead,” a pic about the Forever Hollywood Cemetery next door to the Paramount lot. Permut said the duo’s affinity for the offbeat made them right for the Kinison tale. “Sam, who went from Pentecostal preacher to standup comic, was the quintessential outsider, a character we didn’t want to service with a traditional biopic,” Permut said. “Their take was as irreverent and unconventional as Sam was, much like their documentaries.”

BIZ ROUSING FROM SLUMBER: The late summer lethargy on the pic front shows signs of lifting. Talk has heated up that director Lasse Hallstrom will take the helm of “Unfinished Lives,” the Alan Ladd Jr.-produced Miramax drama scripted by Virginia and Mark Spragg that that at one time had Robert Altman and Paul Newman, before each took other jobs. Hallstrom’s UTA reps caution he’s not decided. And while Colin Farrell’s priority is playing Alexander the Great for director Oliver Stone at Intermedia, talk’s heating up that he will try to squeeze in “At Home at the End of the World,” a piece by “The Hours” scribe Michael Cunningham to be directed by Michael Mayer, best known for staging “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” It’s a love triangle between two men and an older woman.

SINISE GETS MORE GOODLOE: While Gary Sinise just joined the George Armitage-directed “The Big Bounce,” the actor is also set to reteam with “Gentleman’s Game” director J. Mills Goodloe on “August and Everything After,” a drama about a group forced to examine their lives after a harrowing experience on an airplane. Word is that Michelle Pfeiffer is contemplating one of those roles. Sinise will play a clean-cut sports broadcaster whose career ends when he makes ugly remarks to a player on the air.

VARDALOS LANDS: As “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” slingshots toward “The Blair Witch Project” indie record gross of $140 million, writer-director Nia Vardalos has signed by UTA. She had been repped solely by Brillstein-Grey’s Peter Safran for her “Wedding” deal. Her availability will be based on whether CBS picks up a “Wedding” spinoff series, and she’s received seven-figures to script a second starring vehicle for Spyglass, “Connie and Carla Do L.A.,” a Playtone-produced comedy about two women who go on the lam as drag queens in L.A. There’s also a possible musical stage transformation for “Wedding” based on Vardalos’ one-woman show that got the ball rolling in the first place.

CASTINGS: Leslie Hope, whose character died in Fox drama “24’s” shocking finale, has landed the female lead in the indie “The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie.” She joins Gena Rowlands, with whom she did “Love Streams.” Paul Johansson is directing and Nick Cassavetes is exec producing. James Caan and David Schofield also star . . . Harry Lennix has joined the cast of the Elias Merhige-directed “Suspect Zero” for Intermedia . . . Rodrigo Santoro, who made a splash in the Walter Salles-directed “Behind the Sun,” makes his American debut as a villain in “Charlie’s Angels 2” and will join the ensemble of “Love Actually,” the directing debut of “Notting Hill” scribe Richard Curtis, joining Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth and Liam Neeson . . . “Sports Night” star Josh Charles, who has joined the “SWAT” team headed by Colin Farrell at Columbia…Paula Jai Parker, who’ll next be seen in “Phone Booth,” has landed the lead opposite Eddie Griffin in the Miramax comedy “My Baby’s Mama.”

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