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Levinson tunes up

HBO targets 'Assassins'; DiMaggio in Indie

Barry Levinson has made a deal at HBO to de-velop the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins” as a directing vehicle, sources said; it would be the first musical for HBO.

The project will be produced by Storyline Enter-tainment’s Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who pro-duced “Cinderella” on ABC. John Weidman will adapt his book into a script under Levinson’s super-vision, and Sondheim might add songs.

After wrapping New Line’s political satire “Wag the Dog,” Levinson will now focus on the ultimate tragedy that can befall a White House occupant. “Assassins,” with music and lyrics from Sondheim and book by Weidman (from an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr.), had quietly been eyed by HBO and became a high priority when Levinson signed on.

The musical, Sondheim’s most political and con-troversial, brings together all of the crazies who either tried to or succeeded in assassinating a presi-dent, including Ronald Reagan shooter John Hinck-ley, JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Abe Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, FDR shooter Giuseppe Zangara, and Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, who both shot at Gerald Ford. The assassins sing about their motives and the political and social turmoil that turned them into killers.

It’s another example of HBO, under HBO Pic-tures prexy John Matoian, landing feature talent for a daring film. “Assassins” follows closely on the heels of HBO greenlighting its biggest movie ever, the Terry George-directed adaptation of “A Bright Shining Lie,” starring Bill Paxton and Amy Madi-gan. HBO also landed “Dragon” director Rob Cohen for “The Rat Pack,” with the likes of Chazz Palmin-teri in talks to play Dean Martin and Don Cheadle for the role of Sammy Davis Jr.

Sondheim and Weidman are working side by side right now on “Wise Guys,” a musical headed for Broadway next season after a tryout at the Kennedy Center.

Levinson has been working at breakneck pace. “Wag the Dog” opens wide Jan. 9 and the Warner Bros. film “Sphere” opens Feb. 13. Levinson is narrowing possibilities for his next assignment, with the favorites being the Lorenzo Carcaterra-scripted Bobby Darin biopic, or the Levinson-scripted adap-tation of W.P. Kinsella’s baseball novel “Magic Time.” Levinson’s deal was made by ICM.

SMITHEE DATE SLATED:After clashing with writer/producer Joe Eszterhas over a meager release plan, Disney is now getting behind “Burn Holly-wood Burn: An Alan Smithee Film.” Hollywood Pictures opens the film Feb. 27 in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Boston, Philadelphia and D.C.

Eszterhas said he’s submitted the film to Sun-dance Film Fest rival Slamdance, and is hopeful. “This is a Slamdance kind of movie,” he said. “I didn’t even submit it to Sundance because I was afraid that Redford’s ego would pucker when he saw it.”

He seemed relieved to have buried the hatchet with Disney, after trading barbs in the press. “I can’t believe Mickey Mouse is distributing the Mickey Rat movie, and boy, it wasn’t easy,” said Eszterhas. “The next step is to negotiate the Smithee ride at the theme park.” Eszterhas hadn’t quite conceived what such a ride would entail, though he mused, “It ends when you fall off and never work again.”

A JOLT FROM JOE: Even though he’s famously private, Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio has agreed to play ball with the makers of “The First of May.” The indie film will mark his first screen appearance since the 1952 “Angels in the Outfield.” It’s a coming-of-age story starring Julie Harris, Charles Nelson Reilly and Mickey Rooney.

The story involves a foster child with low self-esteem who can’t connect with his baseball-loving foster father because the kid fears he’ll be shipped out again.

The film was scripted by Gary Rogers and will be directed by Paul Sirmons, with both producing with Jan Rhees. Rogers and Sirmons turned their obses-sion with the Yankee Clipper into a quest, driving all the way from Florida to San Francisco to woo him at an autograph show.

Joltin’ Joe bolted before they got there, and the guys came home empty-handed, only to get a call from DiMaggio, who’d read the entire script, and signed on with the explanation the subject matter might make a noble impression on kids. “It was a 3-1/2-month mission, and we could not believe we got him,” Rogers said.

CHURCH IN STATE OF HIGH ACTIVITY: Thomas Haden Church is finding there’s life after “Wings” and “Ned & Stacey.” After co-starring in “George of the Jungle,” “One Night Stand” and alongside Marlon Brando and Charlie Sheen in “Free Money,” Church has landed the co-starring role with Stephen Baldwin in the ABC miniseries adaptation of the Dean Koontz bestseller “Mr. Murder.”

He plays a guy who takes Baldwin’s blood sam-ple and makes a clone. While there seem to be cloned Baldwins acting all over Hollywood, this one’s a killing machine bent on taking over his look-alike’s life.

Church is also burning up the indie film circuit, just completing the comedy “Serial Killing for Dummies,” a role in “Goose” alongside Damon Wayans, D.B. Sweeney, Vincent Spano and Antonio Sabato Jr., and exec producing the Adam Goldberg-directed indie “Scotch and Milk.” He’s repped by CAA’s Steve Alexander and managed by Brillstein-Grey’s Gerry Harrington.

JUSTEN TIME: Medical emergencies seem to heighten the sales skills of Agency for the Perform-ing Arts lit agent Justen Dardis. Once, while being prepped for throat surgery, he sold Caravan a script from a hospital gurney. This week, sitting in the dentist chair being readied for root canal, Dardis got the business affairs call he awaited from Fox 2000, and he sealed a low six-figure deal for Dennis Bar-tok’s horror script “Jenny Hanniver,” with Arnold Kopelson and Sandy Isaac producing. The deal was done before the anesthesia took effect.

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