Grisham pens comeback

Author John Grisham is ending his self-imposed exile from the movie business.

The author is in talks to team with producer Mark Johnson on an adaptation of his new bestseller “A Painted House,” with several financiers angling.

Grisham and his editor-agent David Gernert are also in early talks to sell film rights on “The Partner” and “The Brethren.”

Deals are a change of heart for Grisham, who last sold a book to Hollywood in 1996, when he was paid more than $8 million for “The Runaway Jury.” At the time, he rivaled Michael Crichton as the highest paid writer of film-friendly fiction, with legal thrillers “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “The Rainmaker” translating to picsthat drew A-list stars and filmmakers.

“Runaway Jury” screeched to a halt in pre-production, when director Joel Schumacher (who’d helmed hit movie versions of Grisham novels “The Client” and “A Time to Kill”) ankled because its premise of a jury on a precedent-setting tobacco case lost its thunder when tobacco lost several real verdicts. That, plus a glut of Grisham product released in close proximity that hurt “The Gingerbread Man,” prompted the movie moratorium. Grisham’s since written “The Partner,” “The Street Lawyer,” “The Testament,” “The Brethren,” and “A Painted House.”

Gernert said Grisham’s back at the urging of his readership, and also because he’s had such a pleasant experience on “Mickey,” the privately-financed small film he scripted and is producing with director Hugh Wilson.

“When John would meet with fans, many said they missed his movies,” said Gernert. “Since he decided he was ready to get back in the movie game, we’ve had some exploratory talks with people, and we’re excited by the possibilities.”

Neither “Mickey” nor “A Painted House” is about the lawyers who usually populate Grisham movies. “Mickey” stars Harry Connick Jr. as an IRS-dodging father who goes underground with his Little League prodigy son.

“A Painted House” is the story of a seven-year old Arkansas boy in 1952, whose family’s bumper cotton crop is imperiled by tensions between an Ozark mountain family and a truckload of Mexicans hired to harvest the cotton.

Grisham’s “Painted House” partnership with Johnson came after the pair met at the funeral of Southern writer Willie Morris, whose book adaptation “My Dog Skip” was produced by Johnson. Grisham liked the film, and Johnson and Gernert are now looking to secure a financier. Gernert didn’t expect the rights deal to be like past Grisham megabuck auctions. “We don’t know what the deal will be, but John would be the first to say this is a different movie from the big legal thrillers,” he said. “We’ll have a different approach to developing and making it, and it’s fair to say the deal will be structured differently.”

BIG SCREEN BART? When Fox gave big raises to the voiceover cast of “The Simpsons,” the studio not only ensured the show will run at least two more seasons, it paved the way for a feature film as well. The contract signed by Dan Castellaneta, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Yeardley Smith, Julie Kavner and Nancy Cartwright includes options on two features, the first worth $500,000, and the second double that, with the studio adamant that the feature clause be part of the contract, Dish hears. That lends credence to the notion that Fox, which turned “X-Files” into a pic, has movie star plans for Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa and Maggie.

LEARY SPREADS CHEER: Denis Leary, whose ABC series creation “The Job” is getting renewed for a Thursday, 9:30 p.m. slot, has spread his irreverent humor to the web with retail stores right behind. Leary’s launched Crudegreetings.com, a free service designed to issue sardonic electronic salutations. He’s come up with a catalog of 200 different ones, including this dad’s day sample: “Dad, I tried to be a good son. What did I get in return? A bald head and a back full of hair! Happy Father’s Day.” The venture was hatched by Leary, his Apostle Pictures partner Jim Serpico and a team that includes graphic artists Steve Hochmuth. They’ll launch a line of cards and merchandise that’ll hit stores by early 2002.

CAREER LAUNCH: Annabella Sciorra has made a dramatic case for a comeback, thanks to a sizzling guest starring stint as Tony’s twisted mistress on “The Sopranos.” Sciorra, who recently signed with Writers & Artists, already received (and turned down) two series pilots off her “Sopranos” work. She’s in talks for a feature or two, and will start work shortly with Laura San Giacomo and Jane Kaczmarek in the CBS telepic “The Jennifer Estes Story.”

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