NEWSMAKERS: Magician’s Sad Exit

Doug Henning, the perpetually upbeat, curly haired, mustachioed magician who made illusion a multimedia affair (on the road, on stage, on television) in the 1970s and 1980s, died Monday in Los Angeles. He was 52.

Henning had suffered from liver cancer for five months.

Henning revived the popularity of magic through the rock musical “The Magic Show” in the 1970s, which ran on Broadway for more than four years. He returned to the stage for “Merlin” and “Doug Henning’s World of Magic” in the 1980s. Henning is survived by his wife, Debbie.

The hip-hop world, meanwhile, is mourning the loss of Big Punisher (a.k.a. Christopher Rios) who died Monday in New York at age 28. The 698-pound Puerto Rican-born rapper, whose double-platinum album “Capital Punishment” spawned the hit single “Still Not a Player” in 1998, was thought to have suffered a heart attack. A Westchester County, N.Y., medical examiner, said that while Rios had an enlarged heart and other health problems, the cause of death would not be determined until autopsy tests were complete. Rios is survived by wife Liza and three young children.

In other obituary notices: “Lonesome” Dave Peverett, lead singer of the British blues-rock quartet Foghat, died Monday at age 56 of complications from liver cancer; and Hercules, the grizzly bear who starred in Disney films, commercials and once wrestled with Roger Moore in the James Bond film “Octopussy.” Hercules passed away Monday at age 25.

LEAPIN’ LIZARDS: OK, warning to potential “Magnolia” moviegoers: If you don’t want to read about a key plot point, THEN SKIP THE REST OF THIS ITEM.

All clear?

Anyway … those frogs that rain down on “Magnolia” at the end of the film? Well, they’re widely assumed to be a biblical reference to the book of Exodus. But director Paul Thomas Anderson says the inspiration came from writer Charles Fort first, God second.

Fort was known for compiling clippings about strange, unexplained phenomena, and Anderson used his story about three men being hanged named Green, Berry and Hill in a town called Green Berry Hill to open the film. He also found the frog-shower tidbit from Fort’s various accounts.

“He thought it shouldn’t be explained or that there was a far better explanation. He believed in a place called Megonia, a mythical place above the firmament where stuff would go up to and hang out before dropping back down to Earth. ‘Magnolia‘ is a little tribute to that,” the 30-year-old director says in Daily Variety. “And it sounds funny, but he believed that you can judge a society by the health of its frogs. That doesn’t seem too crazy to me because our frogs are getting all deformed and dying.”

EXPECTING: “Spin City’s” Michael Boatman, who plays Carter, the deadpan-funny gay special assistant on minority affairs, is about to be a father again, according to People magazine. Boatman, 35, and wife Myra are expecting their second child, due in July. The baby will join sister Jordan, 3 … …

“Baywatch’s” Brooke Burns, 21, is expecting her first child with husband Julian McMahon of NBC’s “Profiler.” The two were married Dec. 22.

IN COURT: Looks like “Veronica’s Closet” co-star Wallace Langham will have to face hate-crime charges after all. A Los Angeles judge refused Monday to drop the case, in which Langham was accused of beating a gay tabloid reporter during a supermarket altercation. Despite a civil settlement between the actor and the journalist, the judge says the case must go forward because it was “a fairly brutal attack” and because Langham, 34, allegedly used slurs against the victim. …

… Rapper-entrepreneur Sean “Puffy” Combs pleaded not guilty Monday to charges he was in possession of two illegal guns after a Manhattan nightclub shooting Dec. 27 that injured three people. Combs was indicted Jan. 13 with criminal possession of a weapon. Combs and girlfriend Jennifer Lopez were taken into custody after they allegedly fled the scene of the shooting in the rapper’s sport utility vehicle, but Lopez was released without charges after questioning …

… And we’re happy to report that John Tesh has won back his name. has agreed to return the cybername to the ex-“Entertainment Tonight” host after the TV personality-musician filed suit in federal court.

LAUDED: The Publicist Guild of America has announced its nominations for the Maxwell Weinberg Publicists Showmanship Awards, honoring PR types.

In the film categories, the nominees are the publicists for “American Beauty,” “The Matrix,” “Stuart Little,” The Talented Mr. Ripley and “Toy Story 2“; the television nominees are “Annie,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Judging Amy,” “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “The West Wing.”. The awards will be handed out March 22 at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, Calif. …

… Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox’s Domestic Film Group and senior VP of Fox Filmed Entertainment, will receive the Sherrill Corwin Humanitarian Award at ShoWest for his involvement with numerous charities. The National Association of Theater Owners will give Sherak the honor, which has not been awarded since 1994, during its convention March 6-9 in Las Vegas.

QUICK TAKES: Two-time Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman will pull the early-morning shift to help announce the nominations for the 72nd Annual Academy Awards bright and early Feb. 15. He’ll be joined by Academy President Robert Rehme. …

Jude Law (“The Talented Mr. Ripley“) has joined the presenting team for Oscar night March 26 at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. …

Elizabeth Taylor is scheduled to hold an online chat session on AOL Live from 9-9:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday as a kickoff to Valentine’s Day. Ironically, Dame Liz will be advising men on romantic gifts and other gestures. Tip No. 1: If your lady can’t remember if your present was better than that of hubby No. 4 or No. 7, it’s a very bad sign.