Eastwood will helm ‘Midnight’

GOOD MORNING: Clint Eastwood will direct the WB feature version of John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” which next week marks its 96th week on the New York Times bestseller list. Arnold Stiefel & Randy Phillips and Silver Pictures produce; Anita Zuckerman is exec producer. … No one could have been happier than author Berendt when learning that Eastwood will direct (from a script by John Lee Hancock). “I was tickled,” said Berendt when I spoke to him in Venice; he’s there noodling another book en route to Milan to meet with Rizzoli, which will publish the Italian “Midnight.” The tale of an antique dealer accused of murdering his hot-headed live-in male assistant is a bestseller in 18 countries. Last summer Berendt took Hancock on a tour of Savannah, showing him the people and places which made the book — and Savannah — famous: Mercer House; the cemetery; Minerva, the voodoo priestess; lawyer Sonny Seiler; Lady Chablis; and Emma Kelly, the lady of 6,000 songs. When we were in Savannah last year, we, too, did the “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” tour. Believe me, that’s all anyone there talks about — plus, of course, “the bench” from “Forrest Gump.” Berendt says he will keep his distance on the screenplay. “I didn’t want to write the script,” he said. “I have no experience in movies, and I opted not to do it.” How much was he paid for screen rights? “$300,000. Anita Zuckerman and Arnold Stiefel bought it before the Random House-published book hit the bestseller list. I also get 3 1/2% of the net — if that ever happens,” Berendt laughed. The softcover has been held back because of the continued hardcover success, but will go to Vintage (part of Random House), probably in October, and of course be re-released when the movie comes out. The pic has an early 1997 start, says WB’s Bruce Berman. This summer Clint directs, produces and stars in “Absolute Power.” There’s no role for Eastwood in “Midnight.” The main character, defendant Jim Williams, has been mentioned as a possibility for Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford or — ? Berendt’s favorite Eastwood pic is “A Perfect World,” which was also written by John Lee Hancock, who told Berendt what a pleasure it was to work with Eastwood on that one … Eastwood, who won his directing Oscar for “Unforgiven,” gets his AFI toasting Feb. 29, with Jim Carrey and Rene Russo hosting. Carrey appeared briefly in the Eastwood-directed “Pink Cadillac” in ’89, and Daily Variety‘s reviewer Jane Galbraith wrote of that one, “It may be the weakest Eastwood release ever.” Russo was in Eastwood’s “The Dead Pool,” of which reviewer Jim Harwood wrote here, “It isn’t the best and biggest of the ‘Dirty Harry’ pictures.” But Clint obviously spotted their embryonic talents in both pics. No doubt they’ll have some comments to make about the above at the dinner. George Stevens Jr. is also bringing in Richard Harris, Donald Sutherland and Forest Whitaker for the AFI tribute.

SPAGO MOVES INTO THE BISTRO GARDEN site. Wolfgang Puck, en route to a Hong Kong vacation, called me from the plane to confirm that he and wife Barbara have bought the delightful Bistro Garden from the Kurt and Christopher Niklas family. Thus, another prized L.A. lunch and dining site remains alive. “It’s a great spot — for lunch, dinner, one of the most attractive restaurants with its garden, private dining rooms, etc.” Joining the Pucks in their purchase is CAA’s chief financial officer Robert Goldman, who has been conducting the negotiations for the past few months. There may be others (from CAA as well) involved. Wolfie told me he may move Spago there — or may retain the Sunset Strippery site where he has “a few more years on the deal.” And he’d try to buy out the investors. The lease for the Bistro Garden is for 10 years, with two five-year-added options … Richard Pryor works today in “Trigger Happy” ina scene with Richard Dreyfuss and director/actor Larry Bishop. Pryor’s character is gangster Jimmy Reaper, who was shot in the legs — thus Pryor works in his electric wheelchair. He “forgives” Bishop for shooting him — but lets loose with a few choice four-letter words to express his feelings as well! Pryor and Bishop worked together once before in “Wild in the Streets”– in 1968 … Donald O’Connor plays eccentric millionaire Harlow Stafford in the “Frasier” seg shooting next week, the deal set by Gold/Marshak’s Gabrielle Allabashi.

THE MELODIES LINGER ON. Morton Gould’s death Wednesday morning shocked the music and movie world. No one would have guessed Gould was 82. He was so active — even readying a seminar at Disney World this week. One of his closest friends, Hal David, preceded Gould as ASCAP president (1980-86, Gould ’87-94), and he reminded me, “Gould was always unpretentious.” Friend Jay Livingston remembered his great sense of humor: “He brightened up all the ASCAP meetings.” And David added, “He liked all kinds of music — pop, movie, classical — and was a great musician as well.” George Stevens Jr. recalled when Gould received his Kennedy Center Honor in 1994, along with Kirk Douglas, Aretha Franklin, Hal Prince and Pete Seeger. Gould told him, “Anything American can send me into musical orbit.” I remember Gould’s touching tribute to Henry Mancini and the Society of Singers party at the pre-opening of “Victor/Victoria” on B’way. And I recall first learning to play Gould’s “Pavane” on the piano when I was a teenager in the Bronx. I didn’t know Gould then, but I shall always remember his kindly, smiling face whenever I hear it.