By Mark Armstrong
March 21, 2003 11:14 AM

After a jittery week in Hollywood and throughout the country, producers of the 75th annual Academy Awards insisted Friday that the ceremony will go on as scheduled Sunday — and denied rumors that many stars were dropping out.

As U.S.-led forces stepped up their bombing campaign in Iraq, Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, told reporters that the Oscars are still set for Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

“Will the show go on? Yes,” he said. “At a time when American culture and values are under attack, we think it is important” that the Oscars take place.

But, Pierson added, “We want, like the President himself, to keep our options open. As we see on TV, the situation is changing … we will be watching hour by hour.”

Oscarcast producer Gil Cates — who earlier this week announced that the glitzy red-carpet arrivals had been scrapped in favor of a more “sober” tone — insisted that “rehearsals are on schedule, stars are not dropping out, guests are not canceling.

“We’ve been watching the news as closely as the rest of you,” he added. “If ABC and the Academy make the call to cancel the show — and frankly, I don’t expect this to happen — we will let you know as quickly as possible what we are going to do.”

Postponing the Oscars would not be without precedent. The show has been postponed three times in its 75-year history: Once in 1938 during floods in Los Angeles, again in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was shot.

As war loomed earlier this week, the Academy announced that it would eliminate the show’s glitzy red-carpet arrivals, press lines and fan bleachers. Instead, celebrities arriving by limo will be allowed straight inside the Kodak Theatre — as much to protect the stars from having to talk about war as to cut down on the glamor.

That still didn’t calm some celebrities’ fears. Will Smith (a nominee last year for Best Actor) and “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” director Peter Jackson have reportedly decided to stay home, while even Best Actress nominee Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks were rumored to be on the fence. (Both, however, are slated to attend Sunday.)

Regarding the wildest rumor, he’s heard, Cates said: “No, the White House has not called and asked us to cancel the show. The White House has more important things to do.”

In terms of safety for Sunday’s show, Pierson stressed: “We are not concerned. As (Los Angeles) Police Chief (William) Bratton said, ‘The safest place in America to be will be the Oscars Sunday night.'”

And, in one more bit of promising news, Pierson told reporters that the 400 fans who were kicked out of the red-carpet bleachers “are guaranteed a seat next year.”