Prod'n tentatively slated to start in Oct. with 2005 release

“The Good Shepherd,” the long-developed epic about the history of the CIA, will finally get under way this fall.

Pic, directed by Robert De Niro and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, finally got a greenlight after Universal Pictures reached a co-financing agreement with Initial Entertainment Group. U will handle domestic distribution and Initial will take foreign in the split-rights deal.

Producing are Initial’s Graham King and Tribeca Prods.’ Jane Rosenthal. Exec producing are Francis Ford Coppola, Rick Schwartz and Chris Brigham.

“We’ve wanted to be in business with Graham King for a while,” said U vice chair Mary Parent, “and this was a good one to start that relationship with him.”

Production is tentatively slated to start this October, with “Shepherd” skedded for a late 2005 release.

Pic has been in development for well over a decade by several shingles and studios. De Niro has been looking to direct the pic for several years; DiCaprio has been attached since late 2002. But finding time in their skeds proved difficult.

“It wasn’t a situation where we kept saying, ‘We’ve got to get the script right,'” Rosenthal said. “It’s been about finding the right time to do it.”

DiCaprio, who wrapped Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator” late last year, had set aside much of 2004 to shoot Baz Luhrmann’s “Alexander the Great.” Thesp became available after that pic was put on hold.

Earlier this year De Niro wrapped thriller “Hide and Seek” for 20th Century Fox. He will start production on “Meet the Fockers” for U on April 19 and wrap the laffer some time in July.

“Shepherd” will mark the third pic DiCaprio has made with King. Latter served as co-exec producer on “Gangs of New York,” selling foreign territories. The relationship worked so well that King’s Initial was brought on as a co-financier with Miramax and Warner Bros. on “The Aviator.” On that pic, Initial will distrib domestically, while Miramax and Warners will split domestic.

King said he plans to tout “Shepherd” to foreign buyers at Cannes. “We’ll test the waters and see where it goes,” he said.

“Shepherd” script, penned by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), follows James Wilson, a Yale grad recruited as one of the founders of the CIA. Character is said to be based on the legendarily shrewd but paranoid counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton.

Story spans Wilson’s 40-year career through the Cold War and details the emotional toll it takes on the man and his family.

“Shepherd” will be De Niro’s second directorial effort following 1993’s “A Bronx Tale.” De Niro and DiCaprio last worked together on 1993’s “Ths Boy’s Life.”

Overseeing “Shepherd” for U are vice chair Mary Parent, veep Dylan Clark and exec Regina Lee.

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