GOOD MORNING: The play’s the thing — especially when it becomes a movie musical, like “Chicago.” And DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg and Walter Parkes have left no doubt about their desire to find the legit tuner to transfer to the big screen — and they may have found it. Parkes is en route to Chicago to meet with Stephen Sondheim today to talk conversion of “Sweeney Todd” to the big screen. As noted in Daily Variety‘s story about Sondheim’s appointment as guest director of the Telluride Film Festival (Aug.29-Sept.1), Sondheim is “an acknowledged film buff who worked as a clapper boy on John Huston’s 1954 pic, ‘Beat The Devil’.” Just last week, Spielberg and Parkes gave their blessing to the conversion of their “Catch Me If You Can” to a B’way musical by “Hairspray’s” Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. “Sweeney Todd” made its B’way bow in March 1979 with Angela Lansbury, Victor Garber and Len Cariou starring. Harold Prince directed and producers included Martin Richards who says he, too, has an appointment to talk to Spielberg. He’s also talking with Larry Gelbart and Cy Colemen to movie-ize “City of Angels” and the Gelbart-to-B’way-convert “Tootsie.”

WHETHER AFI’S TRIBUTE to Gregory Peck remains in the June 23 USA show honoring Robert De Niro remains to be seen. The TV’er is a two-hour show and the live program at the Kodak Theater on Thursday went well beyond that — as usual. Director Louis J. Horvitz delivers the final cut to USA Thursday and he allows it’s up to them. It would also be difficult to edit awardee De Niro’s simple closing line of his acceptance speech, “Good night and good night, Gregory Peck.” De Niro was in good spirits after the, admittedly by him, emotional show. At the post-party on the fifth level of the Hollywood-Highland complex he remained off to a side, welcoming congrats from the high profile guests and participants in the show. He spoke at length with Jane Rosenthal, who said their Tribeca Film Fest will again be launched in the first week in May. Although he was kidded about the fact he’s made 80 films, “20 in the past year” — he told me he has no definite plans to start another in the near future. Martin Scorsese, on the other hand, De Niro’s director on eight films, said he’ll start filming “The Aviator” in three weeks in Montreal and shoot in Hollywood in September. But Leonardo DiCaprio, who’ll play Howard Hughes, is already in Canada today readying for the role — and getting his hair dyed black. And he’s already slimmed down considerably for the role of the aviator-lover. Wolfgang Puck, who created an Italian-themed menu for the AFI dinner, followed at the post-party with New York specialties: egg creams, root beer floats, hot dogs and soft pretzels. … Winner of the glamour award of the evening goes to Jodie Foster in a shimmering, off-the-shoulder white satin Armani … Jean Firstenberg said the evening raised more than $1.5 million. She’s now in Maryland for the AFI’s Silverdoc festival at the AFI Silver Spring Theater and Cultural Center … Horvitz next directs the Macy’s two-hour July 4 NBC Fireworks Special next to the Water Club at 34th and the East River. Pre-tapes include Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera during their tour stop at Staples Center, Beyonce Knowles, Sheryl Crow, Kenny Chesney, John Mellencamp, plus tapes by Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Dubya. John Irwin produces.

SIMON & SCHUSTER PARTIED HILLARY Clinton — and 800 friends — at Four Seasons Monday night celebrating the sensaysh takeoff of her autobiog … A fundraiser ($2,000 per) for Howard Dean will be held Wednesday at the home of the Rob Reiners … Barbra Streisand is in the studio recording her album of movie musical tunes … Among those appearing in Monday’s Carnegie Hall tribute to Peggy Lee are Corky Hale and Mike Stoller. The show closes with a filmed performance by Peggy on the Stoller and (Jerry) Leiber tune, “Is That All There Is?” intro’d by Stoller. Hale and Bea Arthur team on “The Shining Sea,” penned by Peggy … Robert Halmi returns to work fulltime at his N.Y. office next week … Dina Merrill’s set for a role in the Texas-Florida set drama, “Exonerated” … HBO’s Colin Callender, named a Commander of the British Empire by the Queen on Friday, admits his surprise — and delight. He recalls asking Laurence Olivier how to address him after he’d received his honors? “Just call me Larry,” he answered. Callender, honored for his “services to the U.K. film and TV industries in the U.S.,” is particularly big on the HBO movie, “The Life and Times of Peter Sellers.” Geoffrey Rush, as Sellers, is not only joined by an all-star cast representing the main players in his life and career, but by Rush also playing their characters much as Sellers had imitated those same people around him … Alana (Mrs. Michael) Jackson is recuping at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center following a stroke. She’s expected to make a full recovery … Attorney Neil Papiano, a partner in the law firm of Iverson, Yoakum, Papiano & Hahn, who has successfully represented many of the industry’s top names, is the donor of a handicapped-accessible park at the L.A. Zoo to be named in his honor. His generosity dates back to his childhood in “the worst area in Salt Lake City.” When his grandmother died, he dedicated her house and property to a park for small children. He ditto’d when his mother died. He tried to create a similar park for handicapped kids here but L.A. nixed. Instead he has created this site in the zoo. And plans more.

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