Warren Beatty Returning to the Big Screen as Richard Nixon?

Warren Beatty | 'Law & Order' | Juan-Carlos Cruz | Odds 'n' Ends

Warren Beatty Returning to the Big Screen as Nixon?

Warren Beatty, whose last film appearance was in the very misguided and expensive "Town & Country," is seriously thinking about making a comeback as Richard Nixon.

The scuttlebutt at Sunday night's spectacularly successful Broadway premiere of the play "Frost Nixon" is that Beatty is on track to portray the much-maligned and scandalized Nixon opposite Michael Sheen as David Frost.

"Frost Nixon" is a uniquely realized account of David Frost's famed 1977 interviews with Richard Nixon three years after the president resigned and left Washington in disgrace.

Indeed, more than a few people at last night's opening commented on the stealth appearance of Beatty's CAA agent Bryan Lourd, who seemed to be scouting the scene for the Oscar-winning director and much-heralded actor. Lourd even followed the premiere crowd over to Tavern on the Green.

But while Beatty would make an excellent choice to play Nixon, some observers noted that Lourd might be reporting back that the play's Nixon, actor Frank Langella, turned in what is sure to be a Tony-winning performance. Last night, Langella was so good it was scary. He seemed to be channeling Nixon and several other spirits.

For example: It is quite rare for an audience to applaud at the end of a monologue in a dramatic or straight play, but when Langella finished the magnificent speech written for him by playwright Peter Morgan, the audience could not help themselves.

"We're trying to discourage that," Langella told me after the play, when he was greeted by more applause from everyone in the Crystal Palace Room. "Unfortunately, it's not working."

So the irony is that Langella is going to be celebrated for this role, and probably given many awards, too. But Hollywood is a strange place, and stars are needed for films. Beatty, because of his name, career and politics (the opposite of Nixon) would garner a lot of publicity for the "Frost Nixon" film.

In the meantime, the opening night for "Frost Nixon" was the best by far this season. Maybe because the show is co-produced by the Weinstein Company, celebrities were chockablock: Mike Wallace, who figures in the story; Liz Smith; Barbara Walters; Kim Cattrall; Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts; Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy; Harvey Weinstein himself; great actor Brian Cox; director Stephen Daldry and of, course, British broadcasting star David Frost, who got to watch himself as played by the wonderful Michael Sheen (he was Tony Blair in "The Queen").

This who-is-going-to-play-Nixon business, by the way, was exacerbated by a late arrival at Tavern on the Green: Kevin Spacey.

He chatted up Sheen — who has catapulted from sweet-faced newish actor to rock star — intensely for about 15 minutes. Apparently, he has some hope of securing this role. But as those close to the production murmured, Spacey's not exactly a draw for movie audiences these days. Count on Beatty.

The play is just tremendous, by the way. Langella and Sheen are certain to pick up Tonys. That's no small feat this season, considering that in the lead category, Schreiber and Christopher Plummer are also hot, and Brian Dennehy is just as good in the featured actor category. It's Peter Morgan's year to win for writing, too.

And there's more "Frost Nixon" news: Frost was aided in his preparation of his landmark 1977 Nixon interviews by author James "Jim" Reston Jr., son of famed late journalist James "Scotty" Reston.

Jim Reston — played superbly on stage by actor Stephen Kunken — kept a diary of his extensive research on Nixon and intended to publish a book from it. He never did, but on June 19, Harmony/Random House will finally release "The Conviction of Richard Nixon."

'Law & Order' Chaos

It's chaos in the world of Dick Wolf and "Law & Order."

Last year at this time, we told you NBC was going to cancel the series after 17 seasons and countless, ceaseless reruns in syndication. But our story did the trick, and the network relented.

Now NBC is sharpening its ax again, looking at both classic "L&O" and spin-off "Criminal Intent" as prime shows to cross off its schedule for next year.

Last week, Variety and other outlets noted this situation, but there was plenty they missed and some things they could not know. The latter included the newest dilemma at NBC about Alec Baldwin and "30 Rock."

Will the peacock's feathers withstand one of its stars calling his 11-year-old daughter a "rude, thoughtless pig"?

Meanwhile, NBC is still dealing with the quiet demise of "Studio 60 on Sunset Strip." That hour must be filled next season.

And then there's all the weird stuff going on in the Wolf's den to keep the two shows on the air. "Law & Order: SVU" has already been renewed; it's a bona-fide hit.

Already told she's out at "Law & Order" is producer Jamie Crowell Blank. She was a controversial presence anyway based on a still unsettled sexual harassment brought by a former staffer.

Wolf is also telling insiders that if "Law & Order" is renewed, he's dumping Jesse L. Martin and Milena Govich, who play the cops on the show.

Wolf is coming up with a plan to cut the show's weekly budget in half, and replacing those actors with less expensive ones would be a way to do that, sources say.

But there's another problem on "Law & Order": S. Epatha Merkerson, the much-admired actress who has been with the show from the start, is unhappy.

Merkerson, who plays a desk-bound cop, has been complaining for years of not having enough airtime. Lately scripts have had her out on investigations, but Merkerson's recent raft of awards and nominations for HBO's "Lackawanna Blues" has emboldened her to make demands and to consider leaving the show altogether.

Publisher 'Cooks' Cookbook Author

Gotham Books, a division of Penguin, is balking at fulfilling one of its contracts.

According to my sources, Gotham is refusing to pay cookbook author Juan-Carlos Cruz the balance of his advance because he didn't get to be as famous as the publisher expected.

Gotham released Cruz's "The Calorie Countdown Cookbook: A 5-Week Eating Strategy for Sustainable Weight Loss" at the end of 2006, hoping to cash in on the annual January diet craze and New Year's resolutions. They also hoped that Cruz's appearances on the Food Network would also help sell books.

But Cruz's time on the Food Network was cut — he's still on there — after he made his deal with Gotham. The publisher, sources say, then lost interest in him. They not also pussyfooted on publicity (the usual story in the lame book business) but they also figured: Why pay the author?

Cruz is said to still be owed $325,000 or half of his advance. But so far, literary agent Angela Miller says Gotham Publisher Bill Shinker — famous in the lit world for erratic behavior — has not returned calls and hasn't sent the check. He never returned our calls, either.

"We don't comment on contracts," his publicist said.

But nowhere in Cruz's contract did it say that he was supposed to be a Food Network star. Now lawyers may get involved.

And here's an idea from yours truly, a former book publicist a lifetime ago: Maybe if the publisher didn't rely on outside events and actually implemented a marketing plan, Cruz's book would have been a hit anyway.

There's still time left, kids. A diet book by a recognized star in the field shouldn't be so hard to tout, you know.

Odds 'n' Ends

Last week's brilliant Ahmet Ertegun memorial had many contributors, but none more deserving than Joel Gallen. He produced the show. Taylor Hackford directed it. David Wilde wrote it.

I should have made all this clear: Gallen does lots of great music shows for TV. It was he who organized the big network special with stars a few days after Sept. 11, for example.

Mrs. Sting, the amazing, multi-tasking Trudie Styler, put in a surprise appearance on Saturday night at Legal Seafood in Boston. Styler was in town for the bar mitzvah of Shane Sager, the son of Bobby and Elaine Sager, crusading human rights activists and Boston philanthropists.

The ceremony, by the way, was the first bar mitzvah in 25 years at Boston's historic Vilna Shul, which is now under restoration as a museum. It's one of three remaining landmark synagogues in downtown Boston — and certainly the first to feature African-American drummers as part of the service.

Tonight: Dionne Warwick and Paul Simon are being honored by Nile Rodgers' We Are Family Foundation at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Call Devin at 212-397-4333 ext. 304 and beg for a standing room ticket. The honorees are set to perform, along with Chic. Cool!