Thesp’s ‘American’ dream

U, George see Cheadle as 'Gangster'

Universal Pictures and director Terry George are courting Don Cheadle to star in “American Gangster” for Imagine.

An offer won’t be made to Cheadle for “Gangster” until George completes the script, but the studio and producer Brian Grazer want the thesp.

Pic nearly went into production with Denzel Washington in the role, but the project was halted over budget concerns. George was hired in March to rework Steve Zaillian’s script to a more manageable budget.

Cheadle would play Frank Lucas, a Harlem heroin kingpin in the 1970s who, after he was brought to justice, helped end the corruption and legal loopholes that allowed him to import the drug from Southeast Asia.

Separately, Cheadle has formed his own producing shingle, a move that grew out of his experience producing “Crash.”

Cheadle got a taste of the producing process in helping to mobilize “Hotel Rwanda,” which took years to get made. George directed “Rwanda,” and Cheadle was Oscar-nommed for his starring perf.

Cheadle formed the as-yet-unnamed company with longtime managers Lenore Zerman and Kay Liberman. They have started with three projects, two of which will be star vehicles.

Cheadle has joined reality producer Bruce Nash and Robert Kosberg to produce “The Fritz Pollard Story,” a feature biopic of the pioneering gridiron great. Pic is an outgrowth of the Nash-produced ESPN doc about the Hall of Famer’s battles against racism to become the first black to play in the Rose Bowl and the first African-American to coach a pro team.

Cheadle will not star in the film, which Nash began actively developing earlier this year as part of a push into features (Daily Variety, March 1). Nash had previously set up the baseball-themed pitch “To Wally Ward” at Revolution.

Cheadle also has joined Plan B and Reason Pictures to develop “Marching Powder,” about Thomas McFadden, a British drug dealer who spent five years inside a Bolivian prison. Pic is based on the book “Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine and South America’s Strangest Jail,” authored by McFadden and Rusty Young. A writer will be set shortly.

“I was fascinated by this prison, which was an entire world unto itself where there were rich and poor, restaurants, this whole economic system,” said Cheadle, who’ll play McFadden.

Cheadle also has teamed with Gus Gustawes and Cameron Jones to produce and star in “The Round.” The drama concerns a golfer who, after hitting his best round, becomes dangerously obsessed with replicating everything he did that day in hopes of repeating the score.

John C. Richards, who wrote “Nurse Betty,” has been set to write the script and direct the film. Cheadle sparked to Richards after the scribe adapted Elmore Leonard’s “Tishomingo Blues,” a film Cheadle hopes to direct and star in with Gustawes’ producing partner, Matthew McConaughey.

“The longer you stay in the game as an actor, the more excited you become by the chance to control your destiny,” Cheadle said. “It’s not as much about trying to get hired as it is to have a hand creating something you feel strongly about.”

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