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‘Empire’ strikes

A glimpse at HBO's premiere party

NEW YORK — HBO preemed “Empire Falls” Monday in the grand theater of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a party following in the Temple of Dendur, where guests proceeded through galleries of Egyptian mummies to view the Maine setting of Richard Russo’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Fair warning was given by HBO’s Colin Callender that there would be no intermission in the 197-minute pic — so calls of nature would be more convenient for those on the aisle. Also, guests found a Power Bar in their ticket envelopes — to stave off hunger pangs.

Before the screening, Callender intro’d the makers of the film, and they were warmly applauded as they bowed from their seats. Paul Newman, executive producer of the mini, star and generally accepted driving force behind the project, was introduced to a standing ovation — and that was even before the film rolled. I asked Newman if this was, as has been reported, his swansong — if he was “retiring.” “I’ve been ‘retiring’ since 1992,” he laughed. I was further able to eke out from the usually taciturn Newman the fact that he does indeed have another project he’s working on. I got another laugh out of him when I asked about the report it was difficult to get wife Joanne Woodward to act in this mini.

His answer, after a hearty laugh: “Are you kidding?” Joanne is, of course, mainly involved as director of the newly built Westport Country Playhouse. She will not be acting, positively (she says), in this final year of her tenure, but will direct two of the plays, including the initial “Finian’s Rainbow” bowing June 18. A pre-opening event will be the June 3 appearance of Christopher Plummer in his one-man show.

Paul will not be acting this year — he has done two shows in the past. His next venture is racing — yes, he’s behind the wheel at 80 — June 10 at Lime Rock. And his other ventures, of course, are the additions of more Hole in the Wall Gang Camps for sick children; the next two sites are Israel and Milan, Italy.

Callender and HBO CEO-chairman Chris Albrecht also talked to me about the next giant HBO venture, the 11-hour John Adams bio, with Tom Hanks producing. Tom will not be appearing; however, it is planned for one thesp to portray Adams from ages 20 to 90. A June preparation start is skedded with appropriately historic sights. How large a budget for this giant venture has not been set. “Empire Falls” came in at $25 million, but that was only because all those involved toiled for far less than their usual salaries, both above and below the liners.

“Empire” director Fred Schepisicq, who winged from Melbourne, told me, “The crew just wanted to work with this group and with this material.” He was not only impressed with Newman’s performance, but with the fact that Newman was on the set “early every day — whether he was in a scene or not.” And while Paul pooh-poohs Joanne’s having to be talked into the role, Schepisi told me, “We had to talk her into it. And she did indeed bring the role a wonderful depth.”

Schepisi is now involved in confabs with Steve Martin to film his “Picasso at the Lapine Agile” — in a new style. The versatile Schepisi also is anxious to do a film in China during the Mao revolution. Richard Russo told me he is working on his next novel, this one set in upper New York state, the story of two boys growing up.

Joining the director ranks is the always awesome “Empire Falls” co-star Helen Hunt, who said she’ll direct “Then She Found Me,” a comedy, for Killer Films, to be sold at Cannes … Richard Gere was on hand for the preem — because wife Carey Lowell plays the young Joanne Woodward in the film. Carey admitted she had not met Joanne until Monday night’s preem. Among other guests applauding were Tony Kushner, who is working with Steven Spielberg on his film about the Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes. And Neil Simon (looking fit post-kidney transplant) has two plays upcoming, a new “Odd Couple” on Broadway this fall and “Rewrites,” based on his memoirs.

Exec producer Scott Steindorff winged in from the Brazil location of “Turistas.” He bought Russo’s “Empire Falls” three years ago to set the mini in motion. He’s working next on “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Tortilla Curtain.” And exec producer Marc Platt, who joined forces with Newman and Russo, was responsible for bringing Schepisi into the picture; P.S.: He, too, told me, “It took a little convincing to get Joanne to be a part of this.” Platt credits HBO for “taking a beloved novel and creating a true reproduction.” “Empire Falls” bows May 28-29. HBO has also skedded multiple airings on HBO on Demand. It will be in demand.

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