Accidentally or otherwise, writer-director Nora Ephron has done Warren Beatty and Annette Bening a favor with her new comedy "Sleepless in Seattle."

References to Leo McCarey's 1957 tear-jerker "An Affair to Remember" in "Sleepless" will almost certainly boost awareness of Beatty and Bening's "Love Affair," scheduled to start shooting in July. "Love Affair" is a remake of both the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr romance and the movie that inspired it, McCarey's 1939 "Love Affair" with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne.Both movies involve a middle-aged playboy and a younger woman who fall in love aboard an ocean liner even though they're engaged to other people.

Meanwhile, "Love Affair" will be directed by Glenn Gordon Caron (TV's "Moonlighting," the movie "Clean and Sober") from a script by Robert Towne ("Chinatown," "Tequila Sunrise").

The Grant-Kerr version "is a running character" in "Sleepless," says Ephron. Meg Ryan, a frustrated single woman who becomes stuck on widower Tom Hanks after hearing him on a radio call-in show, is romantically dazed by the movie, to the extent of arranging a fateful meeting with Hanks at the Empire State Building, a key locale in "An Affair to Remember."

Several video clips of the film are seen in "Sleepless." The "Remember" motif "was the idea of the screenwriter, Jeff Arch," says Ephron. "His mother was always a big fan."

Among connoisseurs of the weepie, "An Affair to Remember" is considered in the same exalted company as "Love Story" and "Back Street" - which doesn't necessarily mean it's a movie classic. Many of the principals involved in both "Love Affair" and "Sleepless" freely admit that "An Affair to Remember" falls somewhere short of that.

As Towne remarks: "If someone sat me down in front of a TV and showed me `An Affair to Remember' cold and then said, do you want to remake this? I would say, `You're out of your mind.' "

"I've always had an enormous fondness for it, which isn't the same as saying it's great," Ephron says. The movie's tear-stained reputation "really boils down to the last 10 minutes. It's a guaranteed wipeout. I think that Grant is so amazing in that scene, so extraordinary. Kerr's expression is just devastating."

The 1939 "Love Affair" "is so much better," Towne declares. "It's a movie of great sophistication and charm. Don't even talk about the '57 version . . . it's a joke, that movie."

Ephron showed the Grant-Kerr version to Hanks during rehearsals, she recalls. "Tom was sitting there going, `Oh, God! This film is not to be believed!' "

"The thing that's so moving about the movie is the thing that's dopey about it - the self-negating masochism of the heroine," Ephron observes. "It's a '50s movie with a very '30s sensibility. It'll be fascinating to see how they handle it in the new film."

One of the more interesting angles about Beatty and Bening playing the title roles in "Love Affair" are the real-life parallels. A producer claims that Towne's script was fueled by Beatty's stories about how he and Bening met and fell in love while making "Bugsy," stories that reflect the playboy-woos-standoffish-beauty scheme of the "Love Affair" screenplay.

"I think it's wonderfully astute casting," says Caron.

The stories behind "Love Affair" and the Beatty-Bening romance are "pretty much the same - that's true," says Towne. "I agree, it'll be interesting. I think it's fair game for an actor to use his persona in the service of an illusion. That doesn't mean what we'll see is a piece of autobiography. It's still an illusion in the end." - JEFFREY WELLS

- HOLLYWOOD - Considering the current baseball standings, is it any wonder that New York Mets fans are booing left fielder Bobby Bonilla, the St. Louis Cardinals may want to bring first baseman Pedro Guerrero out of retirement and the San Francisco Giants are ready to canonize center fielder Barry Bonds?

In 20th Century Fox's upcoming "Rookie of the Year," they're all in the dugout, playing cameos as hapless players who can't get past home plate when a 12-year-old pitcher is on the mound.

The film is the "Doogie Howser, M.D." of baseball movies, with boy wonder Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) as a boy who suffers an arm injury and discovers, once it's healed, that he's got a 100 mph fastball and is recruited for the major leagues.

Yep, those celebrated boys of summer - Bonilla, Guerrero and Bonds - don't even have to feel guilty striking out against the winning Chicago Cubbies; they took the roles for fun (obviously, it wasn't for the comparatively low guild wages) at the bequest of actor-turned-director Daniel Stern ("Diner," "Breaking Away"). Stern plays the Cubs' coach.

What a turnaround from the days when Bonds and Bonilla played together for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Guerrero for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Winning days, winning players. - JANE GALBRAITH

- HOLLYWOOD - Some thought they were hilarious, others sadistic. But the slapstick humor of these three hugely popular knockabout comics has rarely been successfully imitated.

Television audiences in the late '50s and '60s thought they were watching a TV sitcom, when, in fact, they were tuned into broadcasts of old two-reelers that had been shown before feature films in the '30s, '40s and early '50s.

Now the grandson of the trio's ringleader has movie plans for the trio he calls the Icons of Idiocy.

Need we say more? It's the Three Stooges. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

"They were idiots, famous idiots. I think the term's actually a kudo, a validation of how successful they were," said Jeffrey Scott, the 39-year-old grandson of Moe Howard. Along with Interscope Communications, Scott has sold the rights to "The Three Stooges: The Next Generation" to Columbia Pictures, and the project is now in development. (That's a tentative title, obviously, since there's another "next generation" floating about the entertainment galaxy.)

Moe, in case anyone needs reminding, was the one with the helmetlike black haircut who used his two fingers to poke his buddies in the eyeballs, uttering lines like "you lame brain" and "oh, a wise guy, eh?" His pals were his brothers Curly, Shemp - at least in later productions - and Larry Fine. Shemp was later replaced by Joe Besser and then by Joe de Rita.

In the planned movie version, the three main characters will play grandsons of the Stooges who, once separated at birth, are brought back together through a set of comedic circumstances.

Columbia produced most of the Stooges' shorts, including "Men in Black," which earned them an Oscar nomination in 1934 (losing out to "La Cucaracha," the first Technicolor movie). The studio is expected to bring in a new writer on the project.

Besides the movie version, there's a Citadel Press coffee-table book and a line of toys available. A Three Stooges live show is planned for the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas when it opens next year and a "Wee Stooges" animated children's television show is also in the works.

"They were the most popular comedy team in history," said Scott, an Emmy-award-winning writer on the animated children's show "Jim Henson's Muppet Babies" and manager of the Stooges' estate (following the death of his father in 1986).

And why shouldn't he be the family cheerleading squad: "I'm a generation of Stooge myself." - JANE GALBRAITH

- The 61/2-ton movie merchandising gorilla this summer is a dinosaur.

Before long, it will seem that tiny replicas of prehistoric beasts from "Jurassic Park," the movie about a dinosaur theme park gone amok, will be eating up most of the shelf space at the nation's toy retailers, just as the image of a certain caped crusader did a few years back.

But wait. What's that just down the aisle from the plastic veloci-raptors display?

-A rubber conehead for the noggin.

-Red soda pop named after a bratty kid.

-A book of Maya Angelou's poetry featuring hairdresser-turned-scribe Janet Jackson.

-A whale toy tied to a nonprofit environmental cause.

-And a "water squirt" (known to prior generations as a squirt gun) favored by video villains.

(Answers to the above merchandising clues, in order, are:

-Paramount's "The Coneheads"

-Warner Bros.' "Dennis the Menace"

-Columbia's "Poetic Justice"

-Warner Bros.' "Free Willy"

-Disney's "Super Mario Bros.")

This summer, most of the so-called "event" films are rated PG-13 and under, which translates to a big consumer market.

Licensees pay entertainment companies between 5 percent and 10 percent of the wholesale price of the items they make, which can bring the studio of a successful movie much more money than the picture cost to produce and promote. (And, speculation is, for such big-budgeted productions as the $70 million "Jurassic Park" and $70 million-and-counting "Last Action Hero," studios have little choice but to make up expenses with retail sales.)

While some people may have snickered at all those "Batman" stickers plastered on seemingly everything - car windows, skateboards, kites - Warner Bros. and its licensees laughed all the way to the bank. Sales of movie merchandise were estimated to be worth $1 billion worldwide.

Not surprisingly, MTV is playing a bigger and bigger role in tantalizing kids to see the hot movies, then to buy the soundtrack (and the T-shirt, and the video game, and . . . ).

Schwarzenegger appears in what's being touted as the "biggest MTV special" tied to "Last Action Hero." Others are planned for "Poetic Justice," the latest John Singleton movie set in South Central Los Angeles, starring Jackson in her first movie role, as well as for the "Coneheads" movie based upon the old "Saturday Night Live" sketches.

Or, there's the more direct pitch via the Home Shopping Network for cast and crew-style jackets from "Cliffhanger," Carolco's Sylvester Stallone mountain-climbing thriller to be released by TriStar, or on rival cable programmer QVC, the chance to buy stuffed toy whales modeled after the lead character in "Free Willy," an Australian picture about a young boy who frees a friendly whale from a run-down aquarium. - JANE GALBRAITH

- Two veteran film restoration experts are eager to get their hands on Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

Initially suggested by Martin Scorsese in a letter to Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock last fall, restoration of the 1958 classic is being considered by Universal. The project would produce a 70-mm widescreen presentation re-creating the quality of the pristine VistaVision version seen by first-run audiences. A newly mastered stereo sound track, employing original stereo tapes of Bernard Herrmann's musical score, would be an added feature.

The prints used in Universal's 1983 re-release of "Vertigo," struck from a deteriorating negative, were a pale replica of what the film once looked like, according to various aficionados.

Both Robert Harris, who supervised the 1991 "Spartacus" restoration as well as Columbia's 1989 restoration of "Lawrence of Arabia," and former Universal Classics head Jim Katz, who produced the "Spartacus" restoration, are angling to land the "Vertigo" restoration job.

According to one possible scenario, a "Vertigo" laser disc would follow the release of the film in a limited theatrical run. The disc would feature alternative endings that Hitchcock filmed as well as audio-track interviews with the film's stars James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes.

"There's an obvious commercial opportunity here," says Katz. "I can guarantee you that with this restoration, `Vertigo' will look five times better than anyone's seen since the initial release."

Haste with the "Vertigo" restoration project is being urged because the original negative "is almost certainly gone, in a near total state of deterioration," says Harris. He adds that the film's original color separations "may be shrinking, which would make a restoration especially difficult. So time is a factor."

A senior Universal executive confirmed recently that "we are trying to do this. We are discussing it with the Hitchcock estate. But it's a little premature because we haven't cut a deal yet. We have certain rights but the film essentially belongs to the estate."

Yet the late director's daughter, Pat Hitchcock, who would have to approve any deal struck between Universal and the Hitchcock estate, said she hadn't been told about the proposed restoration. "This is the first I've heard about it," she admitted. Asked if she felt that a restoration of "Vertigo" was a good idea, she said, "Well, that would depend on the particulars. I'd have to examine them."

According to two sources, the Hitchcock estate profited handsomely from Universal's 1983 re-release of "Vertigo," "Rear Window," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "The Trouble With Harry." According to one account, the Hitchcocks received 30 percent of the $50 million the films reportedly earned from theatrical and home video markets.

Pat Hitchcock's attorney, Leland Faust, declined to discuss the specifics of the negotiations, except to acknowledge that the issue "came across the table last fall."

A Universal source said that the studio hopes "to wrap up an agreement within the next couple of weeks. - JEFFREY WELLS.

- He had the second biggest grossing movie in America two weeks ago, but "Mattress Mack" was doing what he always does at his Houston furniture store: moving sofas around.

"I'm setting up displays," he explained. "Moving furniture. You know, sofas and love seats."

Jim McIngvale, better known to Houston TV viewers as "Mattress Mack" in his zany furniture commercials, isn't letting success go to his head.

McIngvale invested $16 million to make a movie called "Sidekicks" with action star Chuck Norris. And the investment seems to be paying off.

"Sidekicks" grossed nearly $3.8 million at the box office in its first week in nationwide release. The film was second only to Paramount Pictures' big-budget "Indecent Proposal" with Robert Redford, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson.

How did he do it? While McIngvale was back in his furniture store, his wife, Linda, was jetting around the country on a flying whistle-stop tour with Norris, hitting the talk-show circuit from Nashville to New York, and making personal appearances at dozens of theaters.

It was press-the-flesh marketing rarely seen in Hollywood anymore.

McIngvale and Vision International Chairman Mark Damon, a small, independent distributor based in Century City, near Los Angeles, came up with the strategy. They noticed the success Bill Clinton's presidential campaign had last fall with multistate bus tours so they came up with a similar idea for Norris - only using a plane instead of a bus.

The filmmakers attribute part of the film's success to the fact that Norris - whose prior films have usually been rated R - is in a PG-rated film that children can come watch. The movie is about a boy who is picked on at school and who fantasizes that he is with Chuck Norris, who plays himself.

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McIngvale decided to invest in the movie after meeting Norris two years ago in Houston. The star was having difficulty raising money for an anti-drug program he sponsors for children and McIngvale's wife wrote out a check for $50,000. Later, when Norris mentioned that he was having trouble getting a movie off the ground, she wrote out a check for $250,000.

When it was all over, "Mattress Mack" had bankrolled the movie to the tune of $9 million for its production budget and $7 million for prints and advertising.

McIngvale estimates he needs to make $20 million at the box office and have a strong showing at video stores to break even. But it appears that is within reach.

"Mack will end up making a healthy profit on this picture," Damon said. "He courageously took a big gamble and it paid off." - ROBERT W. WELKOS

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