The actor/writer/director/producer/scholar/artist/teacher is famous not just for his renaissance-man versatility but also for his eagerness to add item after item to the Jenga-like stack of projects in his inbox. The latest, announced last week, is a movie called 'Cherry,' in which he'd play a substance-abusing lawyer who becomes involved with a young porn starlet.
'Cherry' is one of about 20 movie projects Franco has in the works, either as star, writer, director, producer or some combination of those. Some of these projects are further along than others ('Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' for instance, is completed and due for release on Aug. 5). Others may never see the inside of a theater. But so far, these are the movies for which deals have been announced. Add them to Franco's course load in the half-dozen degree programs he's pursuing, the two classes he's teaching, his possible Broadway debut this fall, his visual arts and dance projects, his music videos and his frequent Funny or Die clips, and it's a wonder he can find time to eat or sleep. Here's what's on Franco's current to-do list.
• 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes': Franco leads a cast that includes Freida Pinto and John Lithgow in a franchise-rebooting prequel about how those planet-ruling primates got so smart in the first place. Due August 5.
• 'Maladies': Directed by single-monikered visual artist Carter (who has worked with Franco on a number of short films), this feature drama is about a young soap star (played by Franco) who drops out of the business after an apparent mental breakdown. (Franco's famous recurring role as a demented visual artist named Franco on 'General Hospital' was part of his preparation for this film.) Due for release sometime in 2011.
• 'The Broken Tower': Franco wrote, directed, and stars in this biopic of early 20th-century poet Hart Crane. Debuts next month at the Los Angeles Film Festival, with an eye toward a 2012 release.
• 'Saturday Night': Franco directed this backstage documentary about 'Saturday Night Live' (which he's hosted twice) back in 2008. It's made the festival circuit and was picked up for distribution but has yet to have a release date announced.
• 'Shadows and Lies': In this indie drama, also known as 'In Praise of Shadows,' Franco stars as a man who must rescue a woman from the Mob. Directed by Jay Anania, Franco's film professor at New York University. Traveled the festival circuit over the past year but is expected to bypass general release and go straight to DVD in America (though it may yet be released in theaters overseas).
• 'The Stare': Another film directed by Anania, this one stars Winona Ryder (taking a page from her 'Black Swan' co-star Natalie Portman) as a playwright who fears she's losing her grip on sanity. Franco plays an actor in her troupe. Currently filming in New York.
• 'Oz, The Great and Powerful': Franco will star in this prequel as the con artist who becomes the Emerald City's whiz of a wiz. Michelle Williams will play Glinda the Good Witch, Rachel Weisz the Wicked Witch of the East, and Mila Kunis the Wicked Witch of the West. Sam Raimi, who directed Franco in the three Spider-Man films, will direct. Due in late 2012 or early 2013.
• 'Cherry': No lead has been cast yet in this story of a young porn actress. Franco will play her lawyer, Heather Graham her director, Dev Patel ('Slumdog Millionaire') her boyfriend and Lili Taylor her mother.
• 'Sal': Having played James Dean in a celebrated TV biopic a decade ago, Franco will write, direct and produce this biopic of Sal Mineo, Dean's 'Rebel Without a Cause' co-star. Just last week, Franco cast little-known Val Lauren in the lead. An early summer shoot is planned.
• 'Ricky Stanicky': In this comedy, three middle-aged buddies who've invented an imaginary person that they've used since they were teens as the scapegoat for all their misdeeds are suddenly compelled to produce him, so they hire an actor (Franco) to pose as their made-up miscreant.
• 'The Iceman': Michael Shannon would play Richard Kuklinski, the gangland hitman known as "The Iceman" for freezing his victims so as to confuse investigators. Benicio del Toro would play his Mob boss, and Franco, who is also co-producing, would play Iceman's mentor, the aptly-named Mr. Softee.
• 'The Night Stalker': Another movie about a real-life killer, the notorious Richard Ramirez. Franco is attached to star and direct.
• 'Zeroville': Franco has optioned the film rights to Steve Erickson's surreal novel about a young film student trying to break into Hollywood in 1969. Franco would direct and produce but not star.
• 'The Adderal Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder': Franco has optioned Stephen Elliot's memoir of his tormented life. He'd produce, direct, write, and possibly star.
• 'Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir': Franco has optioned D.J. Waldie's history of Lakewood, California with an eye toward directing it, possibly as a documentary.
On the Drawing Board
• 'As I Lay Dying': Franco has said he wants to write and direct an adaptation of William Faulkner's modernist classic.
• 'Blood Meridian': Franco has said he wants to write and direct an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's modern-day classic.
• Gang fight project: Franco is reportedly interested in working with director Harmony Korine on filming a gang fight involving real gang members and real knives.
• 'Three's Company' project: Having created an art/video installation inspired by the John Ritter sitcom, Franco is reportedly interested in continuing to explore the property's dramatic possibilities in a feature film and an Off-Broadway play.
• 'Sweet Bird of Youth': Franco has been mentioned as a likely co-star for Nicole Kidman in this fall's revival of the Tennessee Williams classic about an aging movie actress and a young hunk. He has yet to make a commitment.
• Besides film school at NYU and fiction writing at Columbia (in which he received his MFA degree last year), Franco has enrolled in fiction writing at Brooklyn College, studied poetry at Warren Wilson College, worked toward a PhD in English at Yale, studied digital media at the Rhode Island School of Design, and enrolled at the University of Houston (starting in fall 2012) for a PhD in literature and creative writing.
• Franco is to teach a class at Columbia College Hollywood called "Master Class Editing James Franco... With James Franco," in which student documentarians will create projects based on behind-the-scenes footage from Franco's movies provided by the star, who will also deliver one lecture a week via Skype.
• Franco is also planning to teach a graduate course this fall at NYU about modifying poetry into short films.
• Franco and Lindsay Lohan are rumored to be posing for a book of nude art photos by photographer Terry Richardson. The pictures, supposedly requiring full-frontal nudity, will reportedly be "provocative but tasteful."
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.