AVOIDING A YEAR of speculation, name-dropping and lobbying, CBS yesterday named Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert to take over the "Late Show" from David Letterman, when Letterman retires next year.

Colbert, 49, has been hosting "The Colbert Report" at 11:30 p.m. since 2005, in character as a fictional conservative talk-show host/blowhard. The character will retire with "The Colbert Report," which will end its run in December.

"I won't be doing the new show in character, so we'll all get to find out how much of him was me. I'm looking forward to it," Colbert said in a statement.

Letterman, who turns 67 tomorrow, announced on his show last week that he would retire sometime in 2015, although he hasn't set a date. CBS said yesterday that creative elements of Colbert's new show, including where it will be based, will be announced later.

New York would appear to have the edge, since Colbert is already based in New York and CBS owns the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the "Late Show" has been taped since Letterman took over in 1993.

Letterman offered his endorsement yesterday. "Stephen has always been a real friend to me," he said. "I'm very excited for him, and I'm flattered that CBS chose him. I also happen to know they wanted another guy with glasses."

Colbert gushed back: "Simply being a guest on David Letterman's show has been a highlight of my career," he said. "I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave's lead."

As for the decision-making process, CBS entertainment chairman Nina Tassler said, "Our discussions really centered on finding the most talented, the most creative [choice], the person who was going to conduct the most interesting interviews and be the most interesting person himself, and that's what led us to Stephen." Tassler said CBS considered several candidates, but did not name them.

The decision opens up a hole on Comedy Central's schedule, which Tattle believes would be best filled by a satirical entertainment-news show.

And we have just the host.

Colbert mentor Jon Stewart showed off some psychic ability Wednesday night, telling New York magazine that Colbert would be terrific for Letterman's job. Stewart said Colbert has a better opportunity to broaden out his comedy than he would.

"He is a uniquely talented individual," Stewart said. "He's wonderful in 'Colbert Report,' but he's got gears he hasn't even shown people yet."

In that way, Colbert is like the Honda Fit being recalled.

Brazilian, then 'Cuban'

"Rio 2" director Carlos Saldanha had all sorts of trouble finding the right voice for a key role in the sequel until he saw Bruno Mars performing on SNL.

Saldanha needed an actor to play the character who comes between the two lovebirds voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway, but was stymied.

"I was struggling with it," Saldanha told our Gary Thompson, "and then I saw him on 'Saturday Nigh Live,' and I thought, that's interesting. I was looking for someone distinctive, and he has a unique persona and vocal quality, and so I contacted him and asked him if he would give it a shot."

It worked out better than Saldanha could have envisioned - Mars showed up and read his lines, but when asked to improvise, did so in spectacular fashion.

"I said, why don't you come up with something that's yours, something new, and we right away started talking about a song. And he left for an hour, with his writing partner Phil Lawrence, and they came back with a song ("Welcome Back") and he sang it a cappella, no background music, just a click track, and it became the song we use in the movie."

* "Shaun of the Dead" star Nick Frost is branching out after working with buddies and creative partners Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright on "Hot Fuzz" and "World's End."

He has the lead in the dance romance "Cuban Fury," opening today, plays opposite Justin Long on a TV comedy "Sober Companion," and has just finished a comedy, "Business or Pleasure," with Vince Vaughn.

"It was great, actually, very good fun. I've liked Vince for a long time, I've liked his stuff, and I've never done that kind of big American film with a big American star, so I was excited when they phoned me up and said they'd love me to be in it, and they'd let me create a character," Frost told Gary Thompson.

"I was kind of nervous, because I wanted Vince to be nice. I don't know what I would have done if I turned up and he was a [wanker], but he wasn't. He's very generous as an actor, and gave everyone space to create."


* Country music star/ "Voice" judge Blake Shelton will play a free concert on the sand near Caesars Atlantic City on July 31.

The concert is presented by the Atlantic City Alliance and its "Do AC" promotional campaign, and will be produced by Live Nation.

Details can be found at doatlanticcity.com.

* Beijing artist Liang Kegang returned from southern France with well-rested lungs and a small item of protest against his home city's choking pollution: a glass jar of clean, Provence air.

He put it up for auction before a group of about 100 Chinese artists and collectors late last month, and it fetched the Chinese equivalent of $860.

That's rarefied air.

Liang is not the only one to make money from China's air-pollution angst. Chen Guangbiao, a recycling tycoon who briefly made headlines with his abortive plan to purchase the New York Times, has been selling fresh air in cans under his "Good Person" brand.

Only $3 each.

Kind of makes $1 for the Daily News seem like a real bargain.

- Daily News wire services contributed to this report.

Email: gensleh@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5678

On Twitter: @DNTattle