THIS JUST IN . . .

* The War of the Neels is over. Super-lobbyist and Al Gore confidant Roy Neel and his wife of 28 years, Suzanne Neel--who have been battling each other in a brutal divorce trial in D.C. Superior Court--told us they reached a settlement yesterday. "We both feel great about it, and our kids and everyone involved are enormously relieved and happy," said Roy, who now lives with girlfriend Regina Clad, a married family friend in the middle of her own divorce. "I think that we've come to a very amiable resolution of this horrible, horrible matter," Suzanne Neel told us. Terms were not disclosed.

* "Will & Grace" star Debra Messing, the cause celeb of yesterday's Great American Smokeout, told us she's doing fine after quitting cigarettes five weeks ago. "The first week was hell, but I got through it with the help and emotional support from family and friends and co-workers," she said. "They were extremely patient with me. I know there were times when I wasn't myself, was being cranky and at times profoundly sad. It's a mourning process you go through. You have to let go of something that has been a big part of your life."

* The Bare Buns Family Nudist Club, which claims 235 members in the Washington-Baltimore area, kicks off its annual holiday clothing drive next week. "We're always looking for ways we can be involved in the community, and it gives us a good feeling," club president Gary Brown told us yesterday.

Hometown Heartthrob, Spawn of Wonk

* The Brookings Institution, that graying Washington think tank, is last place we'd look for movie star glitz. So we're delighted that senior research fellow Pietro S. Nivola--who churns out treatises on urban policy and the global economy--is the father of a fledgling film celeb. Namely 27-year-old Alessandro Nivola, a blond art-house heartthrob who stars in the latest Jane Austen movie, "Mansfield Park," which opens Wednesday.

"I was living in D.C. when I was in the fourth grade at St. Patrick Episcopal Day School," Sandro, as friends call him, told us yesterday from his home in West Hollywood. "Fourth grade is where my acting career started. I played the title character in an original work, 'Poor Marco and the Practical Princess,' after some very kind teacher spent hours staying up late at night composing this masterpiece. I honestly can't remember the details. I do remember wearing a blue velvet coat."

Nivola sports a similar get-up in the Miramax costume drama, in which he plays Henry Crawford--the rich seducer who tries to work his charms on heroine Fanny Price (played by Frances O'Connor). It's his latest meaty role in a movable feast of good parts, including Nicolas Cage's psychopath sibling in "Face/Off," the romantic lead opposite Reese Witherspoon in "Best Laid Plans" and the king in the soon-to-be-released Kenneth Branagh adaptation of "Love's Labour's Lost," in which Shakespeare is reinterpreted as a Busby Berkeley musical. "I've never had the one job that catapulted me into some kind of stardom," said the Yale-educated Nivola. "I've vacillated between just loathing the Hollywood scene and finding it to be livable. But I have an agent and a publicist--the protective shield of people you have to pay. . . . I'd like to just keep doing what I'm doing and stick around for a little while longer."

The Knives of Academe

After only six weeks on the job and a nine-month application process, including a final interview with Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert, Associate Provost Gerry Leisman was fired this week from his $105,000-a-year post overseeing Howard's research programs. On Wednesday, Provost Antoine Garibaldi had two campus security guards on hand when he ordered Leisman to clear out his office.

And yesterday the university took the surprising step of publicly accusing Leisman, 52, of "inconsistencies in materials provided by him while making application for the position." Howard Communications Director Donna Brock faxed us the statement--which is a huge departure from the standard "we-don't-discuss- personnel-matters" boilerplate--in response to our numerous phone calls to university officials.

"I'm somewhat surprised that a press release was deemed necessary," said Leisman, denying that he misled Howard officials. "After almost a year negotiating my position, one would have thought that due diligence would have been performed." Describing himself as a scientific researcher (most recently in Israel) with an undergraduate medical degree obtained in Sri Lanka, Leisman said officials were troubled about a reference to Harvard Medical School on his resume. "I was associated with the child studies department at Harvard," Leisman insisted. "Had Dr. Garibaldi taken the time to discuss his findings with his employee, he would have learned" the facts. "This looks like an attempt to cover his butt."

Got a hot tip or a nagging question? Dish with Lloyd Grove today at 11 a.m. EDT at http://www.washington- post. com/liveonline.