According to Variety, Steve Carell is making a deal to star for Universal in Evan Almighty. He'll likely increase his $500,000 salary for "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" at least tenfold.

Conceived for Jim Carrey until he declined to reprise his role in Bruce Almighty, sequel will take the news anchor character Carell played in that film and put him on an Almighty-inspired quest to build an ark in preparation for a great flood.

Tom Shadyac will return as director, and Morgan Freeman is negotiating to encore as God. Steve Oedekerk wrote the script. Plans are for the film to begin production early next year.

Carrey isn't expected to reprise his role from the original, nor will Jennifer Aniston.

Sony has an option to be co-financier of the film, handle foreign distribution and split the pot with U. That studio is a player because it paid $1.5 million against $2.5 million for Bobby Florsheim/Josh Stolberg spec "The Passion of the Ark," a comedy about a widow told by the Almighty to build the boat. Shadyac, who was part of a rival bid in that spec auction, wanted to use it as the template for a sequel, and Sony made a deal with Universal and Spyglass (Daily Variety, May 14, 2004).

"Evan" will be produced by Shadyac and Michael Bostick of U-based Shady Acres; Spyglass partners Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum will be producers, along with Neal Moritz. Moritz had been aligned as the producer of "Ark," which had Dave Phillips and Matt Luber as exec producers.

Shadyac and Oedekerk retrofitted the "Ark" script into a sequel, but when Carrey declined -- the actor did an "Ace Ventura" sequel but subsequently turned down offers for encores of his other hit comedies -- the director and studio decided to go another way.

They went right to Carell, whose "Virgin" topped the box office charts last weekend with a $21.4 million gross.

"Evan Almighty" will be scheduled around Carell's "The Office," which is in production on a second season. The show is produced by NBC Universal Television Studio along with Reveille, and it airs on NBC. Bruce Almighty grossed $485 million worldwide.