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''Peanuts'' creator Charles M. Schulz dies

Plus, Julianne Moore, David Letterman, Sean ”Puffy” Combs, Ashley Judd, Courteney Cox Arquette, ”Millionaire,” and more

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Julianne Moore
Mark J. Terrill

DEATH ”Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz died in his sleep on Saturday at the age of 77 at his daughter’s Santa Rosa home, according to the Associated Press. He was earlier diagnosed with colon cancer and suffered a series of small strokes during emergency abdominal surgery in November 1999. His final strip, appearing in Feb. 13 Sunday editions, shows Snoopy at his typewriter and other Peanuts regulars along with a ”Dear Friends” letter thanking his readers for their support. ”I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the wonderful support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip,” Schulz wrote. ”Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … how can I ever forget them.” Likewise, his millions of fans will never forget Schulz.

SEQUEL WATCH II Just one day after Universal announced that Anthony Hopkins has committed to ”The Silence of the Lambs” sequel ”Hannibal,” Variety reports that Julianne Moore is in final talks to play his counterpart, FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster had this role in the original). Despite rumors that the front-runners were Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie, Moore is now expected to sign on to the film, which Ridley Scott (”Thelma and Louise”) will direct.

LATE-NIGHT ALERT David Letterman will not return to his late-night post next week as previously expected. To give the recuperating host, who had an emergency quintuple bypass on Jan. 14, more time to rest, CBS will extend its new ”Late Show Backstage” specials. ”Backstage,” which features Letterman’s star guests — including this week’s Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, and Jerry Seinfeld — reminiscing about their favorite appearances on the show, has been an unexpected ratings hit, actually beating Leno’s numbers on a few nights. Upcoming guests include Drew Barrymore, Ray Romano, and possibly Alec Baldwin, Robin Williams, and Bill Murray.

LEGAL BRIEF Yesterday, New York City prosecutors accused Sean ”Puffy” Combs of bribing his driver if he would tell the police he owned the gun NYPD officers found in Combs’ car the night of a nightclub shooting. According to the Associated Press, the prosecutor said Combs offered his driver $50,000 and a diamond ring at the police station where they were arrested on weapons possession charges on Dec. 27. In light of the new information, the prosecutor asked the judge to increase Combs’ bail from $10,000 to $150,000, but no ruling has been made yet. Combs faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of possessing stolen weapons. Combs’ lawyer denied that his client had offered anyone a bribe.

CASTING Ashley Judd may not be on track for a ”Hannibal” role, but she IS in talks to star in the upcoming film ”High Crimes.” The courtroom drama follows a Harvard Law School professor who defends her army officer husband when he’s accused of murdering civilians during a military mission to Central America. Shooting should start this fall…. Courteney Cox Arquette is in negotiations to star opposite Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner in ”3000 Miles to Graceland,” about a group of ex-cons planning a Las Vegas heist. Shooting starts next month in Vancouver.

AWARD ALERT With three Soul Train Music nominations, TLC leads the pack for the R&B and soul awards. Seven artists followed with two nominations each, while major performers Mariah Carey and DMX are only up for one. The 14th annual Soul Train Music Awards will be held March 4 at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium…. Annette Bening has been awarded the ShoWest 2000 Female Star of the Year by NATO (the National Association of Theatre Owners). The ”American Beauty” star will receive the award at the ShoWest convention’s closing-night ceremonies March 9 in Las Vegas.

TUBE WATCH The English company that insures ABC’s megahit quiz show ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has filed a lawsuit in the British High Court alleging that the show’s questions are too simple, making it too easy to win big pools of money and exposing the company to unacceptably great losses. In December, the insurance group Goshawk Syndicate, which is responsible for payments to contestants who win more than $500,000, asked ABC execs to make ”Millionaire” questions harder, but the network refused. An ABC spokeswoman says Goshawk is pulling a stunt to get out of its contract. So far, three contestants have won $500,000 and two have won $1 million. Despite the lawsuit, ABC’s final answer is to keep its highly rated show’s questions unchanged.

OBIT Ernest Goes to Heaven. Actor Jim Varney, who played Slinky Dog in the ”Toy Story” movies and the silly handyman Ernest in TV and films, died yesterday from lung cancer. Varney, 50, who had lost two-thirds of his right lung to the disease, died early yesterday morning in his Whitehouse, Tenn., home.

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