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‘Annie’ TV’er nabs top talent

GOOD MORNING: It was close to 100 degrees Wednesday in the Valley and on Stage 25 at Universal a huge Christmas tree stood in the living room of Daddy Warbucks’ mansion where I visited “The Wonderful World of Disney’s” $12 million “Annie.” Rob Marshall is making his TV directorial debut, Victor Garber plays Warbucks, Kathy Bates is Miss Hannigan, Alicia Morton plays Annie, Alan Cumming is Rooster, Audra McDonald is Grace Farrell, and Kristin Chenoweth is Lily … Flashback to June 3, 1981, when I visited the set of Col/Ray Stark’s bigscreen “Annie,” which was filming in Long Branch, N.J., in a 130-room mansion that cost $10.5 million to build in 1928. Eighteen years ago, John Huston was directing with Albert Finney playing Warbucks, Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan, Aileen Quinn as Annie, Ann Reinking as Grace, Bernadette Peters as Lily and Tim Curry as Rooster. “We would not have made this (TV) version if the movie had been great. There would have been no reason to remake it,” said Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who exec produce with Chris Montan. The Huston pic was far from “great.” Daily Variety reviewer Jim Harwood called it “lumbering and largely uninteresting with the obvious waste reaching Pentagonian proportions.” And he was not alone in his opinion! But for this new version, I predict otherwise after watching a scene Wednesday. This cast of Oscar, Tony and Emmy-winning performers and seasoned crew burst into applause after the dog Sandy effectively (and on cue) growled at the conniving and camouflaged Bates and Cumming who posed as Annie’s parents. Pooch trainer Joel Silverman was couched under the camera of d.p. Ralf Pode. Playing Sandy is Chester, a pound-rescued pooch making his starring debut.

THE CAST IS WORKING for below its usual salaries and Oscar-winner (“Misery”) Bates admitted to me, “I act so I can afford to direct.” Her last effort was “Dash and Lily,” starring Sam Shepard and Judy Davis for A&E, hoping for Emmy nominations. The versatile Bates, who played Adam Sandler’s mom in “The Waterboy,” next stars in “Uncontrollable Love” with Rupert Everett, directed by P.J. Hogan in Chi and London. Bates sings in this “Annie” and was recommended for the role by her “Titanic” costar Victor Garber during his confabs with the producers. Garber, who shaved his head for the Warbucks role, will have time to regrow before starting “Wise Guys” with Nathan Lane on B’way. He was last seen on stage in “Art” … “Annie” came to Disney from Col, courtesy of Ray Stark. And Disney assigned it to its “Cinderella” dream team of Zadan, Meron and Montan, with Mary Kay Powell, president of Rastar Prods., also exec producing … Bates will surprise all with her singing ability (“Easy Street” and “Little Girls”). “First time out of the shower,” she laughed. The Disney vidversion has several firsts, including tunes omitted from the movie. Three-time Tony winner McDonald is the first black actress to play the role of Warbucks’ devoted personal assistant, Grace, and the producers remind that it’s “implied that she and Daddy Warbucks get together when all the smoke of the adoption of Annie has settled.” Add Zadan and Meron, “We also made sure that all the orphans in this version are also multi-racial.” As for the new “Annie,” 12-year-old Alicia Morton — I viewed her opening sequence and listened to her version of “Tomorrow” and if there’s a tear on this page, excuse me … Tony-winner (“Cabaret”) Cumming had been at the preem of “Eyes Wide Shut” the previous night; he plays the hotel clerk in an eyebrow-raising scene with Tom Cruise. The brief scene required a week’s filming. Now, he bicycles between stages of “Annie” and “The Flintstones” prequel, with the latter pic getting preferred call on his services … And returning to “Annie,” for the “NYC” number, is Andrea McArdle, the original B’way “Annie,” who gets time off playing “Belle” in Disney’s legit ‘Beauty and the Beast” for her special “Annie” scene … The vidmovie also filmed on WB’s N.Y. Street (as did John Huston’s troupe) in the broiling heat last week — of course, it was a snow scene. Stephen Hendrickson is the ace set designer who makes it all look real inside and out, winter or summer. “Annie” airs Nov. 7 … Producers Zadan, Meron and Montan reteam with “Cinderella” producers Whitney Houston and Debra Chase for a live touring company of that Disney vidwinner. Casting starts after the first of January and a B’way transfer is hoped for.

ALTHOUGH TERRY SEMEL SEEMED cool and confident onstage at the Village theater as he made intros of “Eyes Wide Shut” principals and presentation of his and Bob Daly’s $100,000 Film Preservation check (added to WB’s already-noted $100,000) he was admittedly more nervous than ever outside the theater awaiting the evening’s start. When asked what would happen to the unmade Stanley Kubrick WB projects, Terry thought one could be “A.I.” (“Artificial Intelligence”) and it’s possible that any one of the three Film Foundation leaders, and friends of Kubrick — Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Sydney Pollack — would want to take over the Kubrick reins … Among the great filmmakers I chatted with at the WB preem was Francis Coppola. You recall he and WB had a long court battle (he won) over the making of “Pinocchio.” The tale now has two versions upcoming — neither by the disappointed Coppola … Martin Landau, who stars in one, is next producing “Out On My Feet” starring Robert De Niro and Barry Primus for his Firestorm Pictures and Skyline Entertainment. Landau’s first off to the Moscow Film Fest, July 23.

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