July 14, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Almost as soon as Lorenzo Carcaterra plunked down his manuscript of Sleepers at Ballantine, the buzz on the nonfiction book galvanized Hollywood. Propaganda Films ended up the victor in a heated, 48-hour auction last February, paying $2.1 million for the movie rights. Within days, Barry Levinson agreed to direct, then opted to write the screenplay himself. In fact, things were moving at such a fast pace — shooting is to start in August for a probable fall ’96 release — that Ballantine decided to move up the publication of Sleepers by six months, to July. For cameras to roll only a month after a book arrives in stores is practically unheard of.

Now the casting of Sleepers seems charmed as well: Robert De Niro has agreed to star, and Brad Pitt is expected to play 28-year-old lawyer Michael Sullivan, the mastermind of the revenge plot by the four friends against their boyhood abusers. In the book, Pitt’s character is described as being ”tall and good-looking” and ”a smooth blend of book smarts and street savvy.” (No matter that he is also supposed to have ”Black Irish eyes” and ”thick, dark hair.”) De Niro will play the boys’ mentor and pal Father Robert Carillo, known as Father Bobby — a not-quite-starring role in the tale. ”He is one of the only characters who is always there, throughout the whole story,” says Carcaterra. Nevertheless, he notes, ”the part has been expanded considerably from the book.”

Sandra Bullock was originally targeted to play the female lead, Carol Martinez, a friend of the foursome who helped them settle their score. But, says Carcaterra, the While You Were Sleeping actress had ”scheduling problems” — and now the betting is that Marisa Tomei will accept the role. Rounding out the cast, a pair of unknowns will likely play John Reilly and Tommy Marcano, the two boys who shoot their former tormentor and are protected by Pitt’s character. Explains Carcaterra: ”You don’t see them very much when they’re adults, mostly at the shooting and in court. Besides, once you have the likes of Robert De Niro and Brad Pitt, you don’t really need other stars.”

Which just leaves one nagging question: Which actor will play the Sleepers author himself? ”It looks like it will be Jason Patric,” Carcaterra says. Does the hunky non-Italian pass muster? ”Hey, he’s 80 percent better-looking than I am and has a lot more hair. I’m very happy.”

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