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Fox hooks ‘Fisher’ lead

NEW YORK — Derek Luke has been signed to play the title role in “The Antwone Fisher Story,” the Fox Searchlight drama that marks the directing debut of Denzel Washington.

It also marks the acting debut of Luke, a 24-year-old whose Hollywood story is as unlikely as that of Fisher, the former Sony security guard who bared his abusive childhood in the memoir “Finding Fish” and who was urged to write the screenplay by producer Todd Black.

Luke works in the gift shop on the Sony lot, commuting from his apartment in Pasadena to get behind the counter early so he can leave early for auditions.

Luke headed to Hollywood from a rough neighborhood in New Jersey to become an actor, lured by some rappers who told him he could find work in a TV pilot they were doing.

After an attempt to hook up with the rappers failed, Luke said: “I couldn’t go back home, where the major option was to sell drugs. I decided to sink or swim, and took odd jobs waiting for something to happen. What I found was that Southern California is flooded with people who have the same dreams as me, all wanting to be told they are good. It turned me inward and pushed me to be a loner.”

Luke took a job ushering audiences to sitcom tapings, before a friend arranged for him to work at the Sony gift shop. There, he met former security guard Fisher, who had just gotten his film break. “He told me about his film, and I asked to read it,” said Luke. “He said that actors like Cuba Gooding Jr. and Will Smith wanted to read it, that I had no chance.” Fisher gave him the script anyway. Luke felt Fisher’s inner rage as though it was his own, the bitterness of growing up without a father in his life. That passion fueled readings that impressed the studio and filmmakers and ended a nationwide search.

“Denzel and I decided to tell Luke by going by the store,” said Black. “He just happened to be on the front steps with Antwone, who was buying a shirt, and Denzel put out his hand to Derek and said, ‘How you doin’, Antwone.’ Derek does a double take, starts crying, hugs Denzel. Then Anwtone cries, hugs me, and we’re all sobbing.”

Luke is managed by Marianne Golan, just signed with attorney Jeff Frankel and is being courted by agents. He’ll leave open the possibility of returning to the store, but that seems unlikely.

MOVIE MILEAGE: The hot book du jour is “Up in the Air,” a novel by GQ lit editor Walter Kirn, which found itself in a three-way tug of war among USA Films (bidding for Good Machine and writer-director Kip Williams), Intermedia and Fox 2000 (which was vying for the book for “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” helmer Jay Roach). The novel, being shopped by CAA and lit agent Cynthia Cannell, concerns an emotionally constipated man who reaches a crisis when he finds that all the high-tech gadgets like cell phones, Palm Pilots, and laptops, which were supposed to simplify the workplace, have actually disconnected him from his real life. The character, whose job is to troubleshoot companies and lop heads to improve financials, is a driven exec, verging on an emotional breakdown until he falls in love and tries to reclaim his life. The bidding battle was expected to be over by week’s end.

DREAM CASTING: While it seemed inspired casting to sign Robert De Niro to play an agoraphobe in “Scared Guys,” the actor the studio’s mulling to play his equally agoraphobic roommate has Col on the precipice of a tantalizing pairing. While the studio’s said to be exploring a traditional comedy star like Adam Sandler, Col’s also been contemplating “The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini to join De Niro. The roommate busies himself with a romance with a shut-in across the hall, but must risk that bliss to help his pal (De Niro) venture out of the apartment for the first time in years to stop a hit that has been placed on a woman De Niro’s character has long admired from his window. The Dean Parisot-directed pic, which was set up with producer John Baldecchi on a pitch by Bob Hilgenberg and Rob Muir and a rewrite by Jeff Nathanson, is one of Col’s plum projects. Gandolfini’s screen stock should continue to rise, with early buzz strong on the Rod Lurie-directed DreamWorks film “The Last Castle,” in which he plays a warden of a military prison squaring off against Robert Redford. The screen momentum is enough to make Dish wonder if Gandolfini will follow “Sopranos” creator David Chase into a deal for a fifth season of the HBO drama. Despite last year’s lead actor Emmy and all the accolades, Gandolfini has expressed reluctance to return to the series beyond the upcoming fourth season…. The Universal black comedy “Intolerable Cruelty,” which has come together and then come undone with several talent combinations over recent years, could be recrystallizing. Dish hears a September reading of the Joel and Ethan Coen-scripted comedy is coming together with director Jonathan Demme, Will Smith and Tea Leoni. The pic’s about a warring couple, and it’s not certain that Demme or the actors will enlist, although the director nearly made the film once and has tried twice to work with Smith. They nearly linked on “K-PAX” and then on “The Truth About Charlie,” the “Charade” remake Demme directed and is editing, starring Mark Wahlberg. Smith, who’s also being heavily courted by director Peter Berg for the firefighter drama “Truck 44,” will be coming off back-to-back films “Ali” and “Men in Black 2”; with wife Jada Pinkett Smith about to embark on two “Matrix” sequels shooting simultaneously in Australia, it’s questionable whether he’ll want to jump right into another movie.

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