Plus, 'The Jenny Jones Show' loses a $25 million verdict, and movie rights for the 'Silence of the Lambs' sequel go for $9 million

OBITUARY Former ”Diff’rent Strokes” actress Dana Plato died of an accidental overdose Saturday night, according to the Associated Press. Plato, 34, who had struggled with a drug problem over the years, had apparently taken the painkiller Loritab and Valium. ”The death appears to be an accidental overdose. We don’t suspect suicide,” police sergeant Scott Singer said Sunday. Plato had appeared on the ”Howard Stern” show in New York on Saturday before flying with her fiance, Robert Menchaca, to his parents’ home in Moore, Okla., to spend Mother’s Day. Plato complained of being tired and went to sleep. Shortly before 10:00 p.m., Menchaca’s mother, a nurse, tried cardiopulmonary resuscitation to revive her but was unsuccessful. Rescue workers were called and Plato was pronounced dead on arrival at Southwestern Medical Center.

VERDICT The family of Scott Amedure, the man who was killed in 1995 by colleague Jonathan Schmitz after Amedure revealed to Schmitz that he had a crush on him during an episode of ”The Jenny Jones Show,” was awarded $25 million by a Michigan jury in a civil suit brought against the show and its producers.

Warner Bros.’ Telepictures Productions, which produces the ”Jenny Jones” talk show, reacted with anger to the verdict. ”We are stunned by the complete disregard for the facts and the law,” said Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures. Telepictures will appeal the decision, which Paratore said was the result of ”appalling attempts of Geoffrey Feiger (the plaintiff’s lawyer) throughout this trial to appeal to bias and prejudice, to greatly distort and misrepresent the facts, and to rely on irrelevant and inflammatory rhetoric based on total fabrication.” Paratore went on to say that the media and the public ”should fear the chilling effect this verdict, if upheld, will have on the basic interview process.”

Some industry insiders agreed that the verdict could have a chilling effect on talk shows. However, most talkers started to take extreme precautions on subject matter and strengthened their legal waivers after the 1995 shooting. Jenny Jones said in a statement that she was ”shocked and saddened” by the verdict, adding that ”the only real tragedy here is that Scott Amedure lost his life.” Schmitz is still awaiting a second trial on the murder charge. He was found guilty in the first trial, but that decision was thrown out on appeal.

PRICEY SALE The movie rights to ”Hannibal,” the just-handed-in sequel to ”The Silence of the Lambs,” are likely to be sold for a record $9 million. Producer Dino De Laurentis, who had first bidding rights because he adapted author Thomas Harris’ first Hannibal Lecter tale, ”Red Dragon,” into the 1986 movie ”Manhunter,” made the top offer, and he will likely team with Universal to develop and produce the movie. This is just the first step in bringing the man-eater back to the screen: Neither Jonathan Demme, Anthony Hopkins, nor Jodie Foster — the team behind the Oscar-winning movie version of “Silence” — have officially committed to doing another movie.

WRAPPING FOR GOOD Liam Neeson has announced that he is retiring from the movies and will only act in the theater from now on. The ”Phantom Menace” star told Redbook magazine that movie actors were only ”puppets” and film was a ”director’s medium.” In addition to ”Menace,” Neeson has two more movies already in the can, so collect his oeuvre while you still can.

CASTING Bruce Willis will play a brilliant con man (offering many opportunities for self-confident smirks) who, upon his release from prison, is immediately blackmailed into helping a Vegas crime lord under investigation for murder in ”Ace in the Hole”…. Michael Caine has joined ”Quills,” the story of pornography innovator Marquis de Sade, also starring Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and Geoffrey Rush…. Remember ”Nanny and the Professor”’s Juliet Mills? Well, you wouldn’t want her taking care of your kids in her new role: She has joined the new NBC soap opera ”Passions” (debuting this summer), playing the soap’s ”demonically evil” woman.

CAST CHANGE There will be a new voice on ”Family Guy”: ”Party of Five”’s Lacey Chabert is exiting as the voice of the daughter. Chabert, who was not credited on the show, will be replaced by ”That 70’s Show”’s Mila Kunis, who plays Jackie. Because the animated series shoots so far in advance, Kunis’ voice won’t be heard until about midway through next season.

TITLE SWITCH Miramax has changed the name of its August release ”Killing Mrs. Tingle” (”Dawson’s Creek” and ”Scream” creator Kevin Williamson’s movie-directing debut) to ”Teaching Mrs. Tingle.” Many suspected that the studio made the switch in sensitivity to the Columbine High School shootings, but a Miramax spokesperson says the studio had been pondering the new title way before the Colorado disaster because it sums up the dark comedy better. ”Tingle” is about a group of vengeful high school students who kidnap their evil teacher and plot to kill her.

PARTY POLITICS Vice President Al Gore stepped down as guest host for Larry King’s show last night when Republicans joined forces to complain that it was unfair to give him all of that free airtime this close to the 2000 election. Gore was to lead a discussion on the Littleton, Colo., shootings; instead he just sat in as a guest for the King-moderated program. Although Gore gave up the mike voluntarily, his spokesman said it was unfortunate that Republicans had to ”inject partisan politics” into coverage of the Columbine disaster.

AULD LANG SYNE Here’s another option for New Year’s Eve: The Eagles will ring in 2000 with a concert at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, along with fellow ’70s rockers Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. The band will get a multimillion-dollar paycheck for its first U.S. concert in four years; tickets will range from $50 to $1,000.

REEL DEAL Director Alex Proyas (”Dark City,” ”The Crow”) has found the perfect author to inspire his creepy imagery: He’s adapting Edgar Allen Poe’s ”The Masque of the Red Death” for Fox.

DROPPED LAWSUIT Tammy Wynette’s three daughters have dropped their $50 million lawsuit against their stepfather, George Richey, in which they maintained that he had helped keep their singer mother addicted to the painkillers that they claim eventually killed her. The three women still have kept the suit open against Dr. Willis March, who was treating Wynette up until her death and prescribing her medication. Richey’s lawyer says that his client still believes that Dr. Walsh was giving her excellent medical care.

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace
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