Movie projects about Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack heat up

By Judy Brennan and Steve Daly
March 13, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

They drank like fish. They smoked like chimneys. They treated women like trash and told ”colored people” jokes on stage.

In short, you couldn’t find a crew of carousers more nose-thumbingly out of step with strict ’90s codes of behavior than the Rat Pack, the Vegas-lounge-loving, lame-movie-making posse headed up by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford who enjoyed their heyday in the early ’60s. And it’s exactly that forbidden-fruit, time-warp appeal — not to mention the news value created by Sinatra’s recent health problems — that’s making all things Rat Pack extremely hot properties in Hollywood right now.

Sporting the most sizzle are two similar projects: Warner Bros.’ Martin biopic, Dino, and HBO’s drama The Rat Pack. But that’s just the tip of the cheese ball: At the urging of director Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie), Columbia recently snapped up the rights — for about $600,000 — to a story in the L.A. weekly New Times about a bungled 1963 plot to abduct Frank Sinatra Jr. Warner also has plans to remake the seminal Rat Pack flick Ocean’s Eleven, about a Vegas heist gone wrong. Not to mention that on April 20 TV Land reportedly will air The Frank Sinatra Spectacular, a long-lost 1965 concert originally broadcast via closed circuit to select movie theaters.

Although the HBO project, starring Ray Liotta as Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Martin, and Don Cheadle (Boogie Nights) as Davis, is the furthest along — it’s already in production — it is Warner’s Dino that’s getting the bigger buzz. That’s partly because of its pedigree. Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (GoodFellas, Casino) are at work on a script based in good part on Nick Tosches‘ acclaimed 1992 biography of Martin. But much of the attention has focused on the out-size cast wish list: Tom Hanks as Martin, John Travolta as Sinatra, Hugh Grant as Lawford, Adam Sandler as Joey Bishop, and Jim Carrey as Jerry Lewis. No deals have been set yet, but a number of the A-listers are jazzed. ”I haven’t seen” a script, says Hanks, but ”good Lord, yeah. It would be great to go off and do that. That’d be like, clear the decks.”

Meanwhile Travolta, who is similarly enthusiastic (”It would be fun,” says the actor) if not exactly a dead ringer for Sinatra, insists he’s plenty simpatico for the role of a rowdy and randy Chairman of the Board. ”I’m a creature of the night,” says Travolta. ”My metabolism doesn’t kick in until 2 in the afternoon, regardless of what time I get up. The only time I feel good in the morning is when I’ve been up all night.”

But current interest in the original Bad Boys doesn’t stem entirely from their party-hearty image. It’s also a matter of timing: Many of the Rat Packers have shuffled off this mortal coil, which makes adapting material based on their lives much easier. More important, it simplifies sticky legal questions of libel or defamation. As Jerry Weintraub, a Dino producer, bluntly puts it: ”Sammy’s dead. Peter’s dead. Dino’s dead. Joey Bishop is practically retired. And Frank is not doing that well.”