Prequel to star Combs, Hernandez

NEW YORK — One week after canceling “American Gangster,” Universal has committed to distribute a film on the same subject that will cost only $6 million.

Production will begin in Harlem Nov. 3 on “Carlito’s Way: The Beginning,” a prequel to the 1993 Universal drama directed by Brian De Palma and starring Al Pacino and Sean Penn.

The young Carlito will be played by Jay Hernandez, onscreen in “Ladder 49″ and “Friday Night Lights.” Also in negotiations to star are Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Mario Van Peebles, Burt Young and Jaclyn DeSantis.

Luis Guzman, who played Carlito’s bodyguard in the first film, will return to play a new character, flamboyant Cuban assassin Nacho.

Michael Bregman will direct his own script. Martin Bregman will produce.

While the original focused on Carlito after he was let out of prison and got sucked back into crime, the prequel will trace the Puerto Rican character’s emergence as a Harlem heroin kingpin in the late ’60s.

U committed to a negative pickup deal shortly after it cancelled “American Gangster,” the Steve Zaillian-scripted drama that had both Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro locked into pay-or-play deals.

The studio dropped director Antoine Fuqua over budget and creative conflicts, then cancelled the movie days later and is now settling those pay-or-play acting deals and absorbing costs that could reach $30 million.

Money will not be a concern for “Carlito’s Way: The Beginning,” which has secured its $6 million budget through private financing, Bregman said. He had long wanted to continue the Carlito story, which is based on novels written by Edwin Torres.

Pic becomes the second De Palma-directed drama that will be prequelized, and in a strange coincidence, Fuqua is attached to direct the other one. David Levien and Brian Koppelman are writing “The Untouchables: Capone Rising,” an Art Linson-produced Paramount drama that traces the rise of Al Capone and his collision course with Jimmy Malone, the Irish cop played in the original by Sean Connery.

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