Universal to get crack at country legend

Nashville-based 821 Entertainment Group and Strike Entertainment have teamed to turn the life of country music icon Hank Williams into a feature film.

Strike Entertainment partner Marc Abraham will write the script. The 821 banner will finance development and most likely production, with Universal getting first crack at the project through its first-look deal with Strike partners Abraham and Eric Newman.

The package includes cooperation with the Hank Williams estate that gives the production use of his most memorable recordings. Also, 821 has optioned the rights to “Hank Williams: The Biography,” a book by Colin Escott that is being used as a resource by Abraham. Escott will be associate producer.

Eric Geadelmann, CEO of 821, and president Anastasia Brown launched the company with the intention of producing and financing Southern-flavored films with mainstream appeal. Earlier this summer, they formed a partnership with the Roy Rogers Family Entertainment Corp. to launch a “King of the Cowboys” film trilogy based on the famed singing cowboy. They’ve also teamed with producer Mark Johnson to option screen rights to “The Testament,” the 1999 bestselling novel by Southern writer John Grisham.

Williams ranks high among the most influential country music singer-songwriters, and he lived a life as hard as any character in a country song. After growing up dirt poor in Alabama during the Depression, Williams skyrocketed to fame with 11 No. 1 hits, including classics “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Williams also suffered from spina bifida, which led him to turnto alcohol and morphine for pain relief. Haunted by demons and bad habits, Williams died in 1953 at age 29.

“It took us almost five years to execute this deal, and people told us we were crazy to try because the estate was so fractured,” Geadelmann said.

On one side of the estate is singer Hank Williams Jr., and on the other is Jett Williams, the illegitimate daughter of the late singer, born days after he died. They haven’t seen eye to eye on much, but they did get together on the biopic.

Abraham is the producer of such films as “Children of Men” and “Spy Game,” who grew up in Kentucky listening to Williams’ music. While waiting for the rights on the Williams biopic to come together, Abraham helmed the Greg Kinnear-starrer “Flash of Genius.”

“He was the first real star who went down as the result of his lifestyle, succeeded by Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain,” Abraham said. “He destroyed himself, but for six years leading to his death, Hank had six songs each year in the top 10.”

Though it’s early, Abraham believes that original recordings will likely be used in the film.

Williams’ story was previously told on the bigscreen in the 1964 George Hamilton starrer “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

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