Woods takes time off for TV

GOOD MORNING: If you wondered, as I did, why James Woods, weaving among starring roles in top movies for expensive moviemakers, is squeezing in a TV project — forthwith his answer. Woods, who just finished “Ghosts of Mississippi” for Rob Reiner and “Kicked in the Head” for Martin Scorsese, and next stars in Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, is now in Wilmington, S.C., starring in “The Summer of Ben Tyler,” a Feb. sweeps vidpic for NBC. He explains, “Apart from the fact it’s a fine script, I’m doing this to purge myself of the oppressive weight of having just played Byron De La Beckwith.” Woods plays the reprehensible killer of Medgar Evers in “Mississippi”; when I watched Woods filming that role, amazingly aged and physically (and mentally) transformed into an ogre, there was no questioning Woods’ admission, “I now need to come up for fresh air.” In addition, he will be seen as serial killer Carl Panzramm Sept. 6, when “Killer” bows in limited run. So Woods says “The Summer of Ben Tyler” TV’er is “a perfect soul cleanser — I play a man who lovingly takes over the care of a retarded black boy”… But Woods must fly back from Wilmington Sept. 9 for first read-throughs with Jodie Foster on “Contact” and then almost immediately return to the telefilm, which winds Sept. 19. The overlapping sked forces Woods to decline the Film Excellence Award at the Boston Film Fest, where his “Killer” will be shown … Woods’ offscreen, serious romantic leading lady, Missy Crider, has been set by Steven Bochco for the important defendant’s role in the new season’s “Murder One.” She is flattered, noting, “Considering the industry’s incredible respect for everything having to do with this series, being selected for this key role is like winning an award.” She has Labor Day off and visits Woods on his TV outing in South Carolina.

THE STAGE IS SET at the Universal Amphi for the MPTV Fund’s 75th anni gala Sept. 26, with Gil Cates producing. And as he unreeled the credits for me, he noted prophetically, “It looks like a mini Oscar show.” Billy Crystal hosts, Debbie Allen directs, Bruce Vilanch is the writer, Mike Seligman and Dennis Doty co-produce, and Danette Herman is associate producer. They were Cates’ Oscar show(s) team. So don’t be surprised if they are all on hand at the Shrine March 24 as well. The MPTV Fund show chairs are Edie and Lew Wasserman and Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg. So far set for the show: John Williams and an 85-piece orch, Tony Bennett, Bernadette Peters and Gregory Hines. Everyone’s contributing his talents (and time) … The Hotel Bel-Air is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the newest owner, Prince Jefri of Brunei, has been quietly adding to his original investment (reportedly $65 million) by bringing the hotel up to regal splendor. Frank Bowling, the hotel’s VP-general manager, just returned from Brunei and the wedding of the Sultan of Brunei’s (Jefri’s brother) daughter Princess Hajjah Rashidah to her second cousin, Pengiran Anak Aj Abdul Rahim (I think). The Bel-Air’s Bowling, no stranger to Hollywood royalty, said the wedding was something out of a storybook: The costumes, the jewels (!) were unbelievable. Over 5,000 were at the ceremonies; 500 VIPs (including Bowling) were in the front rows in the Palace Throne Room for the ceremony … Mel Torme, sad to say, has had to cancel all dates through October, including his Hollywood Bowl stand. Although he recorded 15 tunes for his Ella Fitzgerald tribute album before his stroke, Torme would never release the sides, since they were not totally polished to his usual perfection. However, Mel taped a one-hour A&E special “An Evening With Mel Torme” at DisneyWorld a month before his stroke. A CD could be released from this TV’er.

A FAVORITE TOPIC OF CONVERSATION this week in any (of my) showbiz groups has not been the presidential candidates, air crashes, Olympic bombing or Bosnia, but a very human interest story which has grabbed everyone — except a movie or TV producer. The story is of Binti Jua, the 8-year-old lowland African gorilla who, while carrying her 17-month-old daughter Koola on her back, rescued a 3 -year-old boy who toppled into the gorillas exhibit in the Brookfield, Ill., zoo. Binti Jua was born at the Columbus zoo, then shipped to SanFran and later to Brookfield, where she was “hand-reared.” She became pregnant there in ’94 by a gorilla named Chuma, who was born at Brookfield. He wasn’t interested in his baby or the 3-year-old “visitor” who dropped in on them, I learned. There’s certainly a story here for large or small screen, everyone agrees … Paul Simon donated rights to his song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for use in “Children in America’s Schools,” Eva Marie Saint and Jeff Hayden’s two-hour PBS docu airing Sept. 13 … Louis Gossett Jr., Eric Stoltz and Hilly Elkins were on hand at the DGA for the preview of their “Inside” Showtime apartheid-themed vidpic filmed in South Africa. It airs Sunday, and shows at several upcoming fests.