January 19, 2004 09:55 AM

After topping many critics groups’ “best” lists, director Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” further cemented its chance to take home the Best Picture Oscar on Saturday night by winning the top honor from the Producers Guild of America.

At a 1,000-guest ceremony at the Century Plaza Hotel emceed by John Laroquette, the 2,000-member organization presented “Return of the King” producers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Barrie M. Osborne with the Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award, the equivalent of that group’s Best Picture Award, reports Variety, saying that the decision was hardly a surprise — and that for 10 of the past 14 years, the PGA choice matched Oscar’s, including last year’s “Chicago.”

The finale to Jackson’s screen adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy beat out the other nominees: “Cold Mountain,” “The Last Samurai,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “Mystic River” and “Seabiscuit.”

Besides best picture nods from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics and the Broadcast Film Critics, “Return of the King” has demonstrated the strongest box-office legs of the six PGA nominees, with current international grosses of around $800 million.

In the TV division, the producers of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and “Sex and the City” were honored for episodic drama and comedy series, respectively, while “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” took honors as best reality series (in a category that also include game shows and information series). Producers Mike Nichols and Cary Brokaw received the Visionary Award for producing HBO’s “Angels in America.”

Other winners: Warren Beatty, who received the Milestone Award; Jim Sheridan and Arthur Lappin, picking up the Stanley Kramer Award for their movie “In America”; veteran producer Dino De Laurentiis, the David O. Selznick Award; and “Titanic” director James Cameron, the Vanguard Award.

“Saturday Night Live” regular Tina Fey presented that show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, the David Susskind Achievement Award in New York via a live video feed from New York at the end of the evening’s “SNL” broadcast.

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