December 18, 2003 01:00 PM

SOLD: “American Idol” champ Ruben Studdard, 25, topped the music charts this week, with his new album, “Soulful” selling 417,000 units for the week ended Dec. 14, according to Nielsen Soundscan. He is the third “American Idol” contender to have an album debut on top of U.S. album sales charts. The first season’s winner, Kelly Clarkson, debuted at No. 1 earlier this year when her album, “Thankful,” sold 297,000 units in the first week, while “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken‘s “Measure of a Man,” debuted at No. 1, selling 613,000 in October, eclipsing both champions.

GENERATED: Thanks to early-bird screenings that began at midnight Wednesday, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” earned an estimated $8 million, which is probably a record, says the Hollywood Reporter. The film, which scored raves from critics (and was named best film by the New York Film Critics’ Circle), had midnight shows in 2,100 theaters. The only comparable film is the recent “The Matrix Reloaded,” which had Wednesday night previews beginning at 10 p.m. in 2,750 theaters and grossed an estimated $5 million, which was the highest-grossing preview on the books.

QUOTED: “I don’t think we made a chick flick. We just made a movie.” — Julia Roberts, 36, defending her new “Mona Lisa Smile,” (which has received mixed advance reviews) at a press conference for the film

ALLOWED: John Hinckley, 48, who shot President Reagan in a failed assassination attempt in 1981, will be permitted to leave the mental hospital grounds for a series of unsupervised visits with his parents, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman ruled Wednesday, saying Hinckley no longer posed a threat. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan issued a statement saying: “We continue to fear for the safety of the general public. Our thoughts are with all of Mr. Hinckley’s victims today, especially (Reagan press secretary) Jim Brady and his family, as they must continue to live with the tragic consequences of the assassination attempt.”

REVEALED: “Very exciting,” is how Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, speaking on Thursday’s “Today” show, described seeing her picture on that morning’s front page of The New York Times. Washington-Williams is the mixed-race daughter of late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a politician who built his reputation on his fight to retain the South’s segregationist policies. Thurmond died this past summer, at age 100. Washington-Williams, whose mother was a black maid, said she sought closure in announcing her father’s true identity.

RATED: Tuesday night, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s FOX reality show, “The Simple Life,” attracted nearly 12 million viewers, according to the preliminary Nielsen ratings. That’s nearly 1 million more viewers than tuned into ABC, where Diane Sawyer was interviewing President Bush.

ANNOUNCED: Actress Leah Remini, 33, who stars in the CBS sitcom “King of Queens,” and singer-actor Angelo Pagan, 45, are expecting their first child in June, reports PEOPLE. The couple wed last summer after a six-year courtship.

CAST: Richard Dreyfuss, 56, will headline the London version of Mel Brooks’s Broadway musical “The Producers” when it opens at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, next fall, reports Variety. His costar will be English comedian Lee Evans, 39, best known as one of the suitors in 1997’s “There’s Something About Mary.” Previews begin Oct. 22.

FLEW: Wednesday’s attempted re-enactment of the Wright Brothers’ historic Dec. 17, 1903, flight in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., never got off the ground, as the replica plane encountered winds and rain and landed in a mud puddle. Orville and Wilbur did much better a century ago: Their historic 120-ft. flight lasted 12 seconds. So much for progress. Meanwhile, across the continent in California, the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport was renamed Bob Hope Airport in a ceremony that included the family of the late comedian (who died July 27, at 100), including his widow, Dolores, 94. She said Hope used to travel so much that when his children would greet him at the airport, they often weren’t sure whether he was coming or going.

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