May 17, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Attention all residents of Mount Olympus: Beware of Hollywood agents bearing three-picture deals. Screenwriters are excavating the treasure trove of ancient lore to bring Greek-themed stories to the screen.

Hellenic heroes are already thriving on television in the form of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess, both of which are top 20 syndicated shows. So maybe it was just a matter of time before others picked up the scent.

Several film projects are now under way, most notably Disney’s blockbuster-to-be Hercules, created by Aladdin duo John Musker and Ron Clements. ”Once again this is [Disney] playing fast and loose with cultural icons,” Tom Schumacher, the studio’s executive vice president of feature animation, notes with a chuckle. In the cartoon, due out in summer ’97, Zeus tells an earthbound Hercules (Partners’ Tate Donovan) that before he can live with the gods, he must first become a true hero, which he does with the help of Phil, a trainer voiced by Danny DeVito. ”This film deals with the notion of celebrity,” jokes Schumacher, adding that Disney ”decided to take the classic story of Hercules and turn his 12 labors on their ear.”

For the more literal-minded, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Halmi (NBC’s Gulliver’s Travels) are in preproduction for a miniseries version of Homer’s Odyssey, to air on NBC next spring. Halmi insists that his Greek tale won’t feature doo-wopping deities and cute sidekicks. ”What Disney does is pick one popular image and name, and then completely bastardize it,” he says. ”I’m interpreting literature the most honest way I know how.” Halmi plans to film in locations where the story is set — including Turkey and Greece — and NBC hopes the $20 million-plus tele-epic will bring it the same big ratings it got from last February’s Gulliver’s Travels, which drew a colossal 60 million viewers.

So why is Hollywood, the town known for creating myths, now importing them? ”Greek themes and mythology are mysterious, sensual, and exotic, which makes for great adventure,” says Kevin Sorbo, TV’s Hercules (watch for his new action figures, due out July 15). Others offer less generous answers. ”Grotesque lack of scripts,” says Peter Pappas, director of the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, an international organization that promotes Greek art and literature. ”Hollywood is always looking for stories, and [myths] have got a pretty good shelf life.” Or maybe it just comes down to the bottom line. As Halmi points out, mythology ”is public domain. You don’t have to pay a dime for it.”

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