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Disappearing Acts Disable Touted Film : Movies: For 'Smoke and Mirrors,' it's now magic minus magicians. Connery says it's personal. Marshall and Kennedy say it's artistic.

July 12, 1993|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Smoke and Mirrors," a pricey, special-effects-laden joint venture between Disney's Hollywood Pictures and Cinergi, received a triple whammy late last week when its star, Sean Connery, its director, Frank Marshall, and a producer, Kathleen Kennedy, bailed out.

Connery informed the filmmakers of his decision on Wednesday. Sources said that he was not only unsure that certain creative wrinkles (particularly script problems) could be ironed out but also had "overriding personal reasons" for passing on the project.

Some are speculating that health is a factor. Last year, illness prompted the American Cinemateque to postpone a dinner in Connery's honor for several months.

"This promises to be an arduous shoot, much of it in Morocco," said a Disney insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Connery wasn't up for the wear and tear."

The departure of the husband-and-wife team of Marshall and Kennedy followed a day later. Connery, Marshall explained, was the only one he had contemplated in the role, and the actor's withdrawal would necessitate a major rewrite and push the start date back from October to early 1994.

Despite five months of extensive pre-production (including three trips to Morocco and one to Spain to meet with the star), the director wasn't sure it was worth it.

"The project itself will go forward, but without Sean and without me," Marshall said after a Friday morning meeting with Cinergi chief Andrew Vajna. "Reworking it for another actor would be a nightmare. This week, we had to push the 'go' button or not. Sean was to begin taking magic lessons. Sets have to be built. Rather than putting the movie on the fast track and risking major financial loss, we decided to keep it in the development stage."

Neither Cinergi nor Hollywood Pictures could be reached for comment.

The movie, written by Janet and Lee Batchler, is based on the true story of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, a legendary 19th-Century magician recruited by the French government to quell a bloody uprising in Algeria by showing the colonials that their God-like leader is a trickster like himself. The tale, embellished with large-scale battle scenes in the Sahara, also features a love triangle between the magician, his wife Colette, and a dashing young foreign legion officer.

The film is expected to cost at least $25 million to bring to the screen plus another $25 million or $30 million depending on the actors cast. Mel Gibson, Daniel Day-Lewis and possibly Michael Douglas are being approached to replace Connery. Tom Cruise and Douglas had already been offered the role of the foreign legion officer--a part for which Bruce Willis and Day-Lewis are still under consideration. Nicole Kidman, Isabelle Adjani, Lena Olin and Anne Parillaud have expressed interest in playing Robert-Houdin's wife, said to be one of the meatier female roles in awhile.

Marshall and Kennedy, producers of "Hook" and executive producers of "Cape Fear," left Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment last December to sign a lucrative three-year deal with Paramount Pictures. That the filmmakers' first film since entering into the agreement was for Disney reportedly didn't sit well with Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing.

"The person who's happiest that this project fell through was Lansing," one industry insider said. " 'Smoke and Mirrors' was a thorn in her side."

Marshall, who directed "Alive" and "Arachnophobia" for Disney, explained that he is non-exclusive to Paramount as a director. When he directs, Kennedy is contractually permitted to produce. The next Kennedy/Marshall Company project--Richard Benjamin's "Milk Money," starring Melanie Griffith as a woman of ill repute--will be a Paramount production and go before the cameras in August.

And his next directorial outing? Up for grabs, Marshall said. "Scripts have started to hit the door today," he said Friday, "but I'm going to take a few days to get my mind back in the receptor mode. I loved this project. I'm disappointed it fell through. I'm an amateur magician myself. Mostly 'comedy magic,' I guess you could call it, since most of my tricks don't work."

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