March 02, 2004 11:41 AM

RATED: Despite the evening’s predictability, the power of the “Rings” (coupled with the return of host Billy Crystal and moving the event up a month) boosted the TV ratings of the 76th Annual Academy Awards Sunday night. Some 43.5 million viewers tuned in, giving the show its biggest audience since 2000, reports Reuters. The show posted a 31 percent jump in average audience from last year’s record low of 33.1 million viewers, according to preliminary figures from Nielsen Media Research.

SPLIT: “Spider-Man” bad guy Willem Dafoe, 49, and his companion for 27 years, director-actress Elizabeth LeCompte, have gone their separate ways, reports the New York Post, which says that he is now with an unnamed 29-year-old Italian beauty. Dafoe and LeCompte have one son, Jack, 22.

DIED: Broadway playwright Jerome Lawrence, who with his collaborator, Robert E. Lee, wrote such hit plays as the comedy “Auntie Mame” (and its musical version, “Mame”), “Inherit the Wind” and “First Monday in October,” died Sunday at his home in Malibu, say reports. Lee died 10 years ago. Their final collaboration, a play about Benjamin Franklin, was 1994’s “Whisper in the Mind.”

HIRED: Ex-“Baretta” star Robert Blake, 70, appeared in court Monday with a new lawyer — his fourth since he was charged with murdering his wife three years ago, reports AP. M. Gerald Schwartzbach, 59, has practiced criminal law for more than 35 years. Blake’s trial is now scheduled to begin Sept. 9.

UNSOLVED: Nearly two months after actor-writer Spalding Gray walked out of his Manhattan apartment and disappeared, his wife holds out hope that he will return unharmed, reports AP. “Everyone that looks like him from behind, I go up and check to make sure it’s not him,” says Kathleen Russo. “If someone calls and hangs up, I always do star-69. You’re always thinking, ‘Maybe.'” Police said they have received 36 tips since Gray’s disappearance Jan. 10.

SUED: Game show producer Ralph Andrews, 76, has sued “American Bandstand” icon Dick Clark’s production company for age discrimination, saying he was “embarrassed, humiliated and aggravated” when he was passed up for a job by his fellow septuagenarian, reports Reuters. Andrews claims in his Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit that Clark, 74, sent him a letter in May of 2003 saying he was too old for a job with his production company. A rep for Clark declined comment.

ILL: Despite having filmed portions of her role, Anne Bancroft, 72, has withdrawn from playing Tea Leoni’s mother and Adam Sandler’s mother-in-law in James L. Brooks’s “Spanglish,” reports Variety columnist Army Archerd. Bancroft underwent minor surgery last week at UCLA and is recuperating at home for an anticipated complete recovery but would not be able to do the “physical things” required for the film, according to her husband, Mel Brooks.

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