Mel Gibson, Sean Penn to star in 'Professor and the Madman' (Exclusive)

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After nearly two decades, Mel Gibson is finally ready to bring the best seller The Professor and the Madman to the big screen and has enlisted Sean Penn in the effort.

Gibson, who acquired the film rights back to the Simon Winchester book back in 1998, is poised to star opposite Penn, who is in negotiations, in the true story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary -- a tale that delves into madness, genius and two obsessive men who changed the course of literary history.

Though Gibson had long developed Professor and the Madman as a directing vehicle, he has handed the reins to his Apocalypto writer Farhad Safinia, who is set to direct the film that will see Gibson playing Professor James Murray, who in 1857 set about compiling the OED, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. Penn will play Dr. W. C. Minor, who submitted more than 10,000 entries but was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. Safinia wrote the screenplay.

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LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 12: Signage for actor Shia LaBeouf's #IAmSorry art installation is seen on February 12, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 17: Actor Shia LaBeouf is seen on March 17, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by SMXRF/Star Max/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, Ca - June 05: Shia LaBeouf is seen on June 05, 2013 in Los Angeles, Ca. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 02: (L-R) Shia LaBeouf and Robert Redford attend the TimesTalks Presents: 'The Company You Keep' at TheTimesCenter on April 2, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Rommel Demano/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 23: Shia LaBeouf is seen on May 23, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 02: Robert Redford and Shia LaBeouf attend TimesTalks Presents: 'The Company You Keep' at TheTimesCenter on April 2, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 02: (L-R) Actor Shia LaBeouf, New York Times media columnist David Carr and actor/ director Robert Redford attend TimesTalks Presents: 'The Company You Keep' at TheTimesCenter on April 2, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Eisman/WireImage)
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PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 22: (L-R) Actor Shia LaBeouf and director Fredrik Bond attend Day 4 of the Variety Studio at 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2013 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 06: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) Actor Shia LaBeouf attends 'The Company You Keep' Premiere at the 69th Venice Film Festival on September 6, 2012 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
COLOGNE, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 20: Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lars von Trier, Mia Goth, Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf attend the 'Nymphomaniac' Photocall on September 20, 2012 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Mathis Wienand/Getty Images)
VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 06: Actor/Director Robert Redford (R) and actor Shia LaBeouf attend 'The Company You Keep' Premiere at the 69th Venice Film Festival at the Palazzo del Cinema on September 6, 2012 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage)
VENICE, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 06: Director Robert Redford (R) and actor Shia LaBeouf attend 'The Company You Keep' Premiere at the 69th Venice Film Festival at the Palazzo del Cinema on September 6, 2012 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
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The film brings together two heavyweights in Gibson and two-time Academy Award best actor winner Penn, who have never worked together despite coming of age in Hollywood around the same time. Gibson made his film debut in 1979's Mad Max, while Penn appeared on the scene two years later in 1981's Taps. Both men also frequently direct.

Voltage Pictures, the company behind The Hurt Locker, is selling the film in international territories and will likely be introducing it to buyers at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival. Gibson's Icon Pictures also is producing.

Gibson, Zev Foreman, Nicolas Chartier and Craig Flores will serve as producers.

The filmmakers are eyeing an October start date in Europe.

Gibson directed the upcoming Hacksaw Ridge, which Lionsgate releases Nov. 4. As an actor, his most recent credits include The Expendables 3 and The Beaver as well as the upcoming Blood Father for Lionsgate Premiere. He is repped by Shanahan Management and RPMedia.

Penn directed the Charlize Theron-Javier Bardem starrer The Last Face, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May. He is attached to direct and star in Flag Day, which centers on a father who lives a double life as a counterfeiter, bank robber and con man in order to provide for his daughter. He is handled by CAA and Hirsch Wallerstein.

In addtition to writing Apocalypto, Safinia created the American political drama series Boss, which starred Kelsey Grammer and ran for two season on Starz. He is represented by WME.

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