Bennett banter

GOOD MORNING: I learned about President Clinton’s hospital return when talking earlier this week with — Tony Bennett, his longtime friend, who was visiting with the president in the Oval Office on the day Congress voted to impeach him. Bennett entertained often at the White House, and it was at one of those evenings, Tony recalled, “I had gotten strangulated with a hernia.” Bennett was taken to a room in the White House, where the president visited and then made certain Bennett was rushed to a D.C. hospital. He underwent surgery the next morning. Bennett admits, “I’m his favorite singer and I’ve always been a key supporter of him. I’m a liberal — and that’s the greatest thing you can be.” I spoke to Tony, who was at work on a canvas of Venice in his N.Y. apartment, during this week’s snowstorm. Cary Grant bought his first painting and, per Bennett, “He told me, ‘Don’t do films–they’re boring.’ That’s why he retired and that’s why I only do cameos. Singing and painting are my passion — acting I leave to Pacino.” … On Monday, Bennett will be honored with the Creative Coalition’s Capitol Hill Spotlight Award at the Willard in D.C., in recognition of his leadership and contributions to arts. Among his many pro-arts activities, Bennett spearheaded the campaign to establish the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in N.Y., which offers an extensive arts curriculum “while maintaining high academic standards.” He says of Sinatra, “He was so great to me — he was my biggest influence.” Bennett’s talking to Eli Broad to establish a “sister school” in L.A. … He was particularly proud of another invitation he’d just received — to lecture with his paintings — at N.Y.’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. And he doesn’t even have to sing. But wanna bet he will?

THE FILM VERSION of “The Producers” will be filming all over Manhattan, Mel Brooks enthusiastically reported to me as the pic (Sony releases) wound its first week of filming. While interiors are on stages at the converted Brooklyn Navy Yard, exteriors will expand the Broadway version into an even more colorful musical comedy. F’rinstance, the show-stopping scene of the elderly ladies (about 100 of ’em) dancing with their walkers: The gals will head out of their apartment houses on Fifth Avenue and cavort down the street. “A lot of Central Park will be shot,” said Brooks, heftily extolling director Susan Stroman, the legiter’s director making her film bow. “She’s taken to movies like a duck to water” — and expanding the play. The fountain in Central Park, and the tourist stop outside the Plaza Hotel also become scenes’ sites. “And we’ve (he and co-writer Thomas Meehan) added a couple of scenes from the original movie,” Brooks revealed. “Hey, wouldn’t it a good idea one day,” he laughed, “to show both versions on the same bill?” … There’ll be one new song in this movie version. The budget for the pic is “about $55 million and maybe a bit more,” he said. While “Producers” is now definitely a movie, he promised there’d be little use of CGI. “This is a musical,” he reminded. And yes, Brooks will reprise his role — offstage interruptive singing — during “Springtime for Hitler’s” title number, with the line, “Don’t be stupid/Be a smarty/Come and join the Nazi Party.” Meanwhile, as filming is going on, Brooks reported the London legit “Producers” is going strong and he said the company in Atlanta last week “did a million $.”

JOHN MILLS CELEBRATED his 97th birthday at home in England, where guests included best friends Dick Attenborough and wife Sheilah, on their first outing since the tragic death of their daughter Jane and granddaughter Lucy off Phuket during the tsunami. Juliet Mills, who’d flown over for her father’s birthday, reports the Attenboroughs’ spirits were lifted by the reunion with the longtime friends, but there were also many tears shared by all. Juliet is now back in California, where she was Daytime Emmy-nominated for her role of Tabitha Lenox in NBC Universal’s “Passions.” The past Emmy winner, who has a list of awesome movie and TV credits, tells me she loves the five-time-a-week regimen of a daytimer, “where you must do your homework and know your lines — the first time!” … Laura Ziffren Wasserman and Casey Wasserman welcomed daughter Stella Rose Tuesday. They have a 2-year-old son, Emmet. Grandmother is Lynne W. and great-grandmother is Edie Wasserman … Funeral services for Al Toffel will be held at noon Friday at the Westwood Memorial Cemetery on Glendon in Westwood … Burt Reynolds presents the Gypsy Award Sunday to Dom DeLuise, who will be co-honored with Jane Powell by the Professional Dancers Society at the BevHilton. … Darrah Meeley, co-founder of the Women in Film Fest in L.A., won the Audience Choice Award at the Sedona Film Fest with her “Edgar Cayce, The Beautiful Dreamer” docu… After more than three decades in the biz, literary agent Ronda Gomez-Quinones of the Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency is retiring to spend more time with her husband, director Howard Zieff, and their family … Liz Smith will be toasted by AARP’s Hugh Delahanty and Nancy Griffin March 29 at the Bel-Air Hotel on publication of her delightful “Dishing” (Simon & Schuster) in which she literally mixes dishes (food) with dish (gossip), mixing prose and prunes with the likes of James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Henri Soule, Sirio Maccioni and Malcolm Forbes, with whom she ate “the most unusual meals — in the most unusual places.” It was written before Martha Stewart wound her jail time, but Liz writes , ‘I want Martha to go back to being Martha. She doesn’t have to be humble or contrite and I will go on buying her stuff and I will go on admiring the hell out of her.” Liz says her next book will be a novel. … Joel Grey stops at the Kennedy Center March 18 to co-star in the “Sentimental Journey” songfest and continues on to L.A. to guestar in “Alias” as a doppelganger for Ron Rifkin. It’s one of three guestings for Grey on the show. Joel’s also taping a “Crossing Jordan” seg in which he plays — a dead man …James White, screenwriter of “Ray,” who has 10 film offers, next will pen “Jigsaw” for producer Jonathan Prince at Dimension Films. And Rosa Parks asked White for an autographed copy of his “Ray” script to include in her museum in Montgomery, Ala.

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