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Verhoeven eyes ‘Houdini’

NEW YORK — For his next trick after completing the TriStar sci-fi pic “Starship Troopers,” Paul Verhoeven is in negotiations to direct the Columbia film “Houdini.” If the studio closes a deal with Verhoeven, Columbia will then go right to Tom Cruise to play the master magician.

Though he’s stuck in London shooting Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” Cruise hasn’t lined up his next project and has been dying to play a magician in a film.

A Verhoeven commitment would provide serious levitation to a project that Ray Stark’s Rastar Prods. has developed for 10 years. Stark nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat with “Forrest Gump” director Robert Zemeckis, only to watch him exit to do “Contact.”

The script, by “Nixon” scribes Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, is not a traditional magic movie or a biopic. It focuses on a part of the master magician’s life when he went on a spiritual quest. It happened after he cheated death when a trick went awry. Feeling he should have died, he thought he might have been helped by a higher power. At the same time, he came out against spiritualists who were wildly popular and preyed on people looking for consolation after losing loved ones. Houdini set about debunking those myths.

Verhoeven seemed close to committing: “They gave me the script, I read it and liked it and negotiations will start today,” he said. He’s not a sleight-of-hand freak, but fell for the script. “I’m not a fan of Houdini, but not an anti-fan, either,” Verhoeven said. “Coming from Europe, he was certainly a well-known name to me, but I was not even sure that a project could be done. Trying to translate magic to film doesn’t come across as it does live, but the approach of the writers was extremely innovative.”

Verhoeven got the script 10 days ago, and Columbia is eyeing a spring start. Though he’s not committed, Cruise is an obvious top choice, as he and CW Prods. partner Paula Wagner have searched for a magician project for Cruise for years.

Under the scenario quickly coming together, Rastar president Marykay Powell and Alan Marshall will be executive producers. Col’s Gareth Wigan and Amy Pascal will steer the project, which goes into pre-production in October.

PESCI PITCHES A CHRISTMAS CAROL: Joe Pesci, best known for playing vicious mobsters in “GoodFellas” and “Casino,” wants to play another wiseguy, but this time for laughs. Pesci has joined with producers Tamara Rawitt and Bruce Charet to make Pesci a mobster who’s the centerpiece of a contemporary adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.”

The idea is for Pesci to play a numbers runner whose rejection of the Christmas spirit comes back to haunt him. The project was pitched by Pesci and his co-producers to Island Pictures topper Mark Burg, who bought it on the spot, insiders said. They’re working out the details right now.

It won’t be the first time that Hollywood has taken liberties with the Dickens tale, which is in the public domain. The premise served as the basis for the Richard Donner-directed “Scrooged,” with Bill Murray playing a holiday-hating TV network president.

FROM PINUP TO SPEC GAL: The spec script “School Slut” hit the street Wednesday and created a buzz, and not only because the black comedy about a high schooler wrongly accused of being the school slut is drawing comparisons to “Heathers.” It was penned by Heather Thomas, the female star of the TV series “The Fall Guy,” and subject of the bestselling pinup poster of all time.

Now she and her Writers and Artists agent Larry Kennar are hoping to pin down a script sale. Scott Nimerfro is attached to produce.

HBO MAKING A RICH DEAL: Matty Rich, the wunderkind director of “Straight Out of Brooklyn” who nearly went straight to oblivion with “The Inkwell,” is making a comeback. He’s in talks to direct HBO’s movie about slain rapper Tupac Shakur. The pay web’s doing a pic that was hatched by a purchase of a Tupac book by Armond White and is being done without rights to the music.

That might give HBO a leg up on TriStar, where Quincy Jones has teamed with Joan Hyler and Eileen Kahn to produce a Tupac pic focusing on his relationship with his mother, Afeni Shakur. They’re trying to use the music — including an anthem he wrote and recorded called “Mother.” The whole thing has been bogged down in a fight over Shakur music rights with Interscope and Death Row Records. Rich is repped by Writers and Artists’ Norm Aladjem and Todd Koerner.

GOOD TIMING: Though “Babylon 5” star Claudia Christian’s picture is on the cover of the current TV Guide with castmates Bruce Boxleitner and Jerry Doyle, she’s the only cast member of the sci-fi show not on board for next season. After years of being produced by Warner Bros. as a firstrun syndication show, “Babylon 5” changed course by landing with TNT. Christian’s contract ran out after the fourth season and she refused an extension offer from WB.

So when Turner closed this deal, the creatives were bummed to find out that the show’s female lead is a complete free agent. Discussions are under way to sign her to a new deal to keep her in the fold.

CASTINGS: The cast surrounding Natalie Portman’s Broadway debut in the revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” is coming together. The first major addition is Linda Lavin, who won a Tony for “Broadway Bound,” and who will play Mrs. Van Daan, the role that won Shelley Winters an Oscar in the 1959 film. The list of actors for the key role of Frank’s father, Otto, is down to several big names and is expected to be decided soon. The play starts in Boston on Oct. 28, and then moves to Broadway in November….

“Rocketeer” star Bill Campbell, who’s playing the lead in the Old Globe Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors,” moves directly to play Dr. John Fielding in Armistead Maupin’s “More Tales of the City.” He’s repped by ICM’s Tracey Brennan.

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