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‘Beneath’ pairs Ford, Zemeckis; D’Onofrio nabs ‘Abbie”

Harrison Ford has agreed to star for director Robert Zemeckis in “What Lies Beneath,” a top secret supernatural project loosely pegged for a mid-1999 shoot at DreamWorks. The film is being produced by Image Movers, Zemeckis’ production partnership with his former CAA agent Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey.

Ford would play a college professor who becomes entwined in a murder mystery with ghostly elements. The screenplay was written by Clark Gregg, who took an idea by Steven Spielberg and turned it into what is shaping up to be a major project.

While a Zemeckis spokesman acknowledged the project is one of several Image Movers is developing, he denied Zemeckis has decided on his next directing effort. But sources said Ford has cleared room in his schedule for the project, something a star of his stature would not do if this ghost movie were merely an apparition.

The prospective first pairing of the actor and director automatically becomes a seismic event, since they collectively have had a hand in some of the biggest grossing films of the last two decades, with Zemeckis most recently hitting big with “Forrest Gump” and Ford with “Air Force One.”

Ford, who’s about to open alongside Anne Heche in the Caravan-produced Touchstone comedy “Six Days, Seven Nights,” is booked to star this fall with Kristin Scott Thomas in the Sidney Pollack-directed Col film “Random Hearts.”

Image Movers has moved to buy a second project from Gregg, an untitled pitch which will pay the scribe a healthy six-figure sum, said sources. Aside from screenwriting, Gregg is an actor/director and founding member, along with David Mamet, of the Atlantic Theater.

Gregg just completed a lead role in the indie film “Sebastian” and starred in Jez Butterworth’s “Mojo” at the Gotham-based Atlantic last January.

Zemeckis is repped by CAA, Ford by Patricia McQueeney and Gregg by William Morris’ Sophy Holodnik.

ABBIE LANDS D’ONOFRIO: Director/producer Robert Greenwald has a greenlight and, more important, a star for his Abbie Hoffman biopic “Abbie!” Vincent D’Onofrio has agreed to star as the ’60s activist in a film scripted by Bob Ward and Bruce Graham.

The film is one of two Abbie efforts, with a rival pic being developed by producers Tony Lord and Matt Weaver. But Greenwald will be the first to go into production, with a July 20 start date in Toronto. His film is being financed by Greenlight Prods., the investment group which bankrolled his last two film efforts, including “Breaking Up,” the Russell Crowe-Salma Hayek film which Greenwald directed.

The key to the film, Greenwald feels, was landing D’Onofrio, an actor whose diverse turns range from the villainous bug in “Men in Black” to the crazed grunt in “Full Metal Jacket.”

D’Onofrio shares Hoffman’s rugged build and looks, but Greenwald was more concerned with another trait he has in common with the controversial protester/antiwar activist who was tried as a member of the Chicago Seven and went underground to hide from the FBI over a cocaine bust.

“What makes him perfect is that he’s as big a risk-taker creatively as Abbie was politically,” said Greenwald. “Abbie was never a person who held anything back, and Vincent has shown that he is fearless as well.”

D’Onofrio and his partner Ken Christmas will be executive producers along with Jon Avnet, for whom Greenwald made his directing debut on the telepic “The Burning Bed.”

Greenwald’s concentrating on getting the picture made, but said they’re getting overtures for distribution and soundtrack for the film, which covers Hoffman’s origins in activism up until his death by suicide in 1989. ICM’s Tracey Jacobs reps D’Onofrio.

As for the rival Abbie, Lord and Weaver said they’ve got a script by Mark Groubert that covers Hoffman’s underground years, with Ben Stiller on board to play Hoffman. The producers said they’ve parted company with director Mark Rydell, and will name a helmer and distributor shortly, eyeing a fall start.

FRASER LOOKING TO “DO RIGHT”: After helping turn the Jay Ward-created cartoon “George of the Jungle” into a Disney blockbuster, Brendan Fraser is looking to trade loincloth for a red Mountie outfit and play another Ward creation, “Dudley Do-Right.”

The pic’s high priority for Universal, with a new Dudley ride a centerpiece of its Florida theme park and the studio hoping for a big summer 1999 hit. Hugh Wilson directs after his rewrite got a greenlight.

Wilson just directed Fraser in New Line’s “Blast From the Past,” and the two got along well. Pic’s produced by John Davis, Jo-seph Singer and Todd Harris. While several sources cautioned no deal was imminent and that Fraser was only under consideration, U’s primed to keep Fraser in the fold following buzz on the U pic he’s toplining now, “The Mummy.”

Pic will shoot in Vancouver this August, and, aside from Fraser’s affinity for Ward and the half-pint market, he seems a natch — his grandfather was a Mountie. Dudley is best-known for being the statuesque but somewhat dim hero with the strong dimpled chin which Ward actually modeled after the Hollywood press agent Howard Brandy, who was his best friend and press agent for three decades.

Fraser’s repped by William Morris.

LIFE AFTER “SANDERS”: Gerard Depardieu’s recent motorcycle accident has knocked him out of the strong ensemble cast New Line landed for the Peter Chelsom-directed film “Town and Country,” toplined by Warren Beatty, Andie MacDowell and Goldie Hawn. Dish hears that Beatty’s close pal Garry Shandling might well step in and replace Depardieu, which would be his first role since finishing his celebrated HBO series “The Larry Sanders Show.” UTA reps him.

MORE CONSPIRACY FOR STEWART: After playing the heinous tormentor of Mel Gibson in “Conspiracy Theory,” Patrick Stewart wants to try the protagonist role in a conspiracy film. His Paramount-based company Flying Freehold has optioned the upcoming Noah Hawley novel “A Conspiracy of Tall Men,” which will be published by Crown.

Stewart signed a Par production deal when he reupped to continue as Captain Picard in the “Star Trek” films. His company’s run by Wendy Neuss, and the author was repped by Renaissance.

The novel’s about a professor of conspiracy theories whose wife is killed in a mysterious plane crash and who gathers evidence that the government caused the crash to cover up its development of a mind control drug.

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