Photo by Hugh Williams
By Janet Shprintz
Bert Fields settles into a black and walnut Harvard chair in his incongruously dark and clubby inner office near Beverly Hills. He explains how he came to the aid of Sony Entertainment when the studio thought actor Tobey Maguire was using his bad back as a negotiating chip on the eve of his reprise shooting of the title role for “Spider-Man II.”
“I got a call out of the blue from Sony asking for my help, and I said yes,” Fields says. “Not five minutes later the phone rang again. It was [Universal president] Ronnie Meyer. His daughter Jennifer was dating Tobey, and Ronnie wanted to know if I could help out Tobey, who was having a little difficulty with Sony. ‘I’d love to help you, Ronnie,’ I told him, ‘but Sony called not five minutes ago about the same thing, and I agreed to help them.’”
Welcome to the world of Bert Fields, the most famous entertainment lawyer in America.
For the record, Maguire’s ailing back healed itself after Fields demanded a physical, and he returned to “Spider-Man II,” properly contrite. The film, of course made box-office history with the largest opening day ever and made the second-highest domestic receipts of all time, behind only Titanic.
Some might think the story smacks of potential conflict, but that would simply reveal ignorance about how Hollywood operates. After decades as a power broker, the 76-year-old Fields, a partner at Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman, Machtinger & Kinsella, has woven a tapestry of relationships not only with creative types but also with studio executives. On occasion those relationships become entanglements, but mostly his clients enjoy his insider’s ability to get things done with a minimum of fuss.
Despite a few — very few — bumps along the way, Fields transcends the role of even the most high-priced lawyer. He serves a unique function as adviser to a wide range of friends and clients, many of whom view each other as, at best, friendly enemies.
Mario Puzo, a client, once described Fields as “the greatest consigliere of them all.” As Hollywood becomes increasingly corporate and technology-driven, Fields may also be the last consigliere.
Fields has most famously represented talent, including longtime clients Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman and, more recently, Tom Cruise. Less famously, but equally frequently, he has represented every studio but Disney, not only in full-blown litigation but also in an informal advisory role. And as if that weren’t enough hats, he is the only major entertainment lawyer to handle both litigation and transactions.
Cool and urbane, the bone-thin Fields is L.A.-bred and Harvard trained, with tastes running to fine art his wife is art consultant Barbara Guggenheim — fine wine and erudite literary research. He has written two racy legal thrillers under a pseudonym, as well as two nonfiction works about Shakespeare.
“I get lots of hate mail,” Fields says cheerfully, referring not to his legal practice but to his most recent book, “Players,” which argues that the plays were not written by Shakespeare, whom Fields insists on referring to as “that Stratford guy.”
Although his threatening letters and inflammatory quotes to the media have earned Fields the sobriquet of pit-bull litigator, far from frothing at the mouth, he is a study in icy calm. His courtroom demeanor, whether in front of a judge or a jury, is low-key and conversational; the game plan is to win through inexorable logic. As many victims have discovered, however, there’s a steel fist in the velvet glove.
The killer instinct was on full display when he questioned chief executive officer Michael Eisner in Katzenberg v. Disney in 1999. At the height of the Disney chief’s powers, Fields’ questioning began the slow unraveling of Eisner’s skein.
In a dream moment for any lawyer, a red-faced Eisner, towering over Fields, warned him not to pursue his line of questioning.
Fields, unperturbed, continued to ask Eisner if he ever had called his former right-hand man, Jeffrey Katzenberg, “the little midget.” The trap, of course, had been set years ago when Fields won a motion requiring author Tony Schwartz to turn over his notes from the book he co-authored with Eisner, “Work in Progress,” in which Eisner made repeated references to Katzenberg’s lesser size.
Although Fields’ lair was probably not designed by the set decorator for “The Godfather,” it’s a pretty good interpretation for a lawyer. Ensconced in two large rooms in the four floors occupied by his Century City law firm, he moves between a walnut-paneled working office containing a massive leather-covered desk piled with books and papers, Windsor chairs and a portrait of the longest-serving U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall. Adjoining this is a private conference room with antique tables and a black tufted leather sofa just like these. The walls are covered in gray silk grosgrain, on which are hung a portrait of George Washington, a red lacquered Chinese screen and a splendid woodcut of a Samurai warrior, the gift of a Japanese client. On a pedestal in the corner stands a marble bust of a bewigged English judge.
“I think studio heads call me from time to time for personal advice because we’re friends and we see each other,” says Fields, who adamantly dispels the notion that he gets clients through socializing. “The referral of cases is strictly based on whether they want me to represent them in a particular case and doesn’t have anything to do with socializing. These are not people who would turn over a major piece of litigation to someone just because they saw them at a dinner party.”
The movie “Zoom,” currently in production by Sony and Revolution Studios, was a case in point. The tale of a former superhero called back to transform a group of ragtag kids was challenged by Fox and Marvel Enterprises, which claimed the movie was confusingly similar to “X3,” the latest sequel to the block- buster “X-Men Series.”
The case quickly settled with a change in the release date, but not before a few vintage expressions of outrage in the press from Fields that the allegations were “absolutely off the rails.”
To settle the dispute, Fields was hired not by Sony, but by Revolution partner Tom Sherak.
“We were sitting in a room, knowing we were going to be sued, and we said, ‘Let’s hire Bert. There’s nobody better.’ And we did,” Sherak says.
Sherak was well acquainted with Fields, who handed him and producing partner/director Joe Roth a loss in an arbitration where Fields represented DreamWorks.
Ross and Sherak arbitrated through the Motion Picture Association of America over a movie title about a holiday tale. DreamWorks was using ‘Surviving Christmas,’ while the producers were using ‘Skipping Christmas.’
“At the arbitration, Bert made DreamWorks’ case and we made ours. Bert was eloquent as usual, and basically … we lost,” Sherak says. But that’s not the punch line, according to Sherak, who says that while the group was waiting for the arbitrator to return a decision, Fields and Roth had an exchange that went like this: “I don’t see why this is such a problem,” Fields says.
“What do you mean? We want to use this title, it’s the title of a John Grisham book, and you won’t let us use it.”
“Just use a different title.”
“But we want that title.”
“Bert puts his hand to his chin and looks up and says, ‘Why don’t you call your picture, “Christmas With The Kranks?”’” Sherak says. “Bert actually titled the movie!”
Sherak is far from the only adversary-turned-client. To this day, one of Fields’ favorite stories involves producer and famed art collector Ray Stark, who died in 2004.
“I represented Jimmy Caan on the picture ‘Funny Lady,’ and Ray was the producer,” Fields reminisces of the 1975 show starring Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice. Caan was under consideration to play showman Billy Rose opposite her.
“I couldn’t reach a deal with Ray’s lawyer, and I finally told him we couldn’t move forward on the picture,” Fields says. “Ray went crazy. After it was all resolved he sent Jimmy a piece of art with a note: ‘Please tell Mr. Fields to shove this bust up his ass.’”
Fields has dabbled in representing every major Hollywood studio except Disney during his career, most recently adding Sony to the fold. But Paramount Pictures is where he holds perhaps the deepest attachment, having survived three regimes. He is a close adviser to current Paramount chief Brad Grey; he counseled Grey’s predecessor Sherry Lansing during her long reign, and before that he represented Lansing’s predecessor and former partner Stanley Jaffe.
When Paramount was found liable in 1990 of cheating humorist Art Buchwald out of his profit share for a movie idea that became “Coming to America,” studio chairman Marvin Davis turned to Fields to get the verdict thrown out. Fields went up against his close friend Pierce O’Donnell, the noted Los Angeles trial lawyer who took on Hollywood’s accounting practices. The two managed to reach a settlement, depriving Hollywood of legal precedent on accounting procedures.
Fields has also represented Lansing’s husband, director Billy Friedkin. But more on that later.
Despite these close ties, Fields also represented clients against Paramount, particularly “Godfather” author Puzo. He also represented Beatty in a well-publicized fight over cutting the 3-hour, 20-minute film “Reds.” (Beatty, a client for 25 years, first encountered Fields when he was on the other side of the table in a dispute with comedian Elaine May).
“There were never any big suits [against Paramount],” Fields says, “but lots of fights.”
Fields says he’s known Paramount chief Grey “forever.” Years ago, long before Grey had hooked up with Bernie Brillstein to create the most successful talent management company in Hollywood, Fields says he got a call from Michael Ovitz — another longtime client — asking him to look out for an up-and-coming young manager who was going to have a bright future. The duo, of course, went on to create the Brillstein-Grey Entertainment Agency, which managed the careers of numerous comedians and other talent, and launched such shows as “The Sopranos” and “The Cable Guy.”
Grey, who last year joined Paramount as its chairman, says he’s never heard the Ovitz story, but he agrees they have known each other forever. “He has great wisdom and great instincts about people and our business. He has a laserlike instinct for the truth of any situation,” says Grey, who adds that his favorite moments have been when Fields represented him.
With Grey now head of the studio, Fields negotiates against him representing talent.
“The first time he was in on the other side,” Grey says, “I said, ‘Bert, this doesn’t feel right. You’re supposed to be next to me.’”
Fields handled two nasty litigations for Grey: One was a high-profile case in which former client Garry Shandling accused Grey, his manager and executive producer of his show, of conflict of interest; the other involved a claim by “Scary Movie” producer Bo Zenga that Brillstein-Grey had orally agreed to make him an equal production partner in the film.
Zenga’s case ended when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien took the case away from the jury and directed a verdict for Grey, which was upheld on appeal. The Shandling case ended with a confidential settlement in 1999, but who won is still a matter of dispute.
While both Fields and his opposing counsel and good friend David Boies agree that they settled the case on the eve of trial over a bottle of wine, Fields says Boies is flat wrong in declaring victory.
When Shandling filed his $100 million suit alleging that Grey, his personal manager and the producer of his HBO series, “The Larry Sanders Show,” had an irreconcilable conflict, the case was greeted as a watershed event. Initially a series of rulings and sanctions went against Shandling, until the volatile Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ralph Dau handed him a lifeline by reversing a written tentative motion granting Grey summary judgment.
In his book, “Courting Justice,” Boies claims the cards then star ted to fall his way. Fields had to bow out because the trial of Katzenberg’s claims against Disney had started, and Boies (who was virtually invisible during the pretrial phase) got an unexpected break from pursuing the U.S. government’s claims against Microsoft and would be available for trial.
But Boies doesn’t mention that Shandling was under pressure from Columbia Pictures to settle because he was about to make his big- screen debut in a film that turned out to be a bomb, “What Planet Are You From?” There was also the huge potential for embarrassment on both sides, with Shandling sure to face accusations of erratic behavior and the rehashing of a sexual harassment incident.
Boies recounts that he told Fields that Shandling was entitled to an eight-figure cash payment in addition to buyouts of interests in various television series, but in a footnote he states that the “settlement’s value” was eight figures. Fields says “the cash portion was substantially less than eight figures.” In Hollywood, at least, the settlement was viewed as a piddling end to the case that was supposed to blow the lid off the management business.
As for Friedkin, he represents one of the rare times Fields’ many entanglements tripped him up. He represented Friedkin and “Exorcist” author William Blatty in a routine lawsuit against Warner Brothers over profit participation and other accounting issues on the 2000 re-release of the film.
While the suit was pending, Fields was called in by Warner Brothers’ subsidiary HBO to handle a high-profile blowout over James Gandolfini’s salary demands on “The Sopranos.” Hanging in the balance was the fifth season of the highly profitable show.
Friedkin refused to waive the conflict, and Fields was forced to with- draw as counsel. Fields stayed involved, however, as an adviser to Brad Grey. The executive producer of the series and not a party to the suit, Grey played the part of peacemaker. Friedkin’s case settled later in 2003 on the day of trial.
The only cloud on Fields’ otherwise charmed career came in 2003. To the astonishment of Hollywood, he revealed that he had been questioned by the FBI in connection with a grand jury probe of whether private investigator Anthony Pellicano had conducted ille- gal wiretaps to aid his clients. Fields consistently has maintained that he had no knowledge of Pellicano’s activities, and the U.S. attorney for Los Angeles has been mum for many months.
Fields has made no secret of his use of the flamboyant detective, a favorite of several entertainment lawyers who currently is serving a federal sentence on a weapons charge. Fields most famously deployed Pellicano during Michael Jackson’s first child molestation case and also used him on a sexual harassment case for producer Don Simpson, Grey’s lawsuits and for a few hours as security at the Katzenberg trial.
After a brief period of keeping out of the limelight, Fields is back in full swing.
He says he spends lots of time on Tom Cruise matters, mostly advising him on deals. Over the years, Fields has aggressively and successfully pursued libel suits against tabloids claiming they have proof that Cruise is gay. Although Fields says he has no involvement in Cruise’s decision to proselytize for Scientology, he has sent out cease and desist letters, particularly in connection with the recent expose in Radar magazine detailing Cruise’s alleged ascent through Scientology’s upper ranks.
Happy to defend his client, Fields says, “If somebody says false things of a defamatory nature about Tom Cruise, whom I will defend till the end of time, I will go after them in any appropriate way I can.”
Showing no signs of slowing down, Fields is preparing for trial this fall on behalf of author Clive Cussler. The case involves script approval on the film “Sahara,” which did middling box office for Paramount and boasts one interesting factoid: It was the directing debut of Breck Eisner, Michael Eisner’s son.
Fields also is preparing a massive pro bono lawsuit on behalf of poor and minority schoolchildren. He’s not ready to discuss it yet, except to say, “It’s the kind of thing lawyers ought to do.”
Fields finds himself very much involved these days with his signature client, Jeffrey Katzenberg. In typical Fieldsian fashion, his relationship with DreamWorks founder Katzenberg has morphed from litigator to counselor of both the individual and the company.
“To have Bert in your life is to have a gift that keeps on giving,” Katzenberg says. “I have met many people in my travels, and I just find Bert’s a treasure — as a man, a friend, as a resource. Professionally, I think he’s in a category of one.”
Along with Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Fields represents DreamWorks in a spate of shareholder actions and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation against the publicly traded animation entity. Fields allowed that he also is “tangentially involved” in talks with Universal about the sale of the DreamWorks live-action division, producer of movies such as American Beauty and Gladiator.
“I often negotiated against Jeffrey when he was at Disney,” recalls Fields, who has been suing Disney since the 1960s. At that time he represented book publisher E.P. Dutton in a suit against the company that ironically involved a rights issue on Winnie the Pooh, a character that so engulfed Fields almost 40 years later.
“Eisner at one point barred me from the lot and said he wouldn’t deal with anyone I represented,” Fields adds. “I met Jeffrey for lunch to try to work things out, and over time we became friendly.”
Fellow DreamWorks founder David Geffen also was a Fields client after a bout as an adversary in a ferocious lawsuit over “Personal Best,” where Fields represented director/writer Robert Towne. Katzenberg and Fields became inextricably linked when they sued Disney, claiming the former Disney president had unfairly been denied his bonus of 1 percent of profits. Many headlines and a trial later, the case settled in 1999 for an estimated $250 million.
Fields has made something of a career of suing Disney. He quietly represented Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who founded Miramax Films, through years of skirmishes with their corporate owner Disney, rarely making public statements until he settled up the brothers’ departure earlier this year, without litigation.
Besides the Katzenberg case, Fields’ other high-profile litigation against the studio, while not technically in the loss column, lacked a fairytale ending. Fields represented the Slesinger family, the holders of the license for Winnie the Pooh, in their epic royalty battle with the studio. Atypically for Fields, the plaintiff, while wealthy, was a Hollywood outsider, and Fields was one of a long string of lawyers hired by heir Pati Slesinger to handle the case.
Although Fields got her the desired publicity and a few apparently significant wins, he withdrew in 2003 for undisclosed reasons. A year later, the 13-year-old case, which is now on appeal, came to an astounding end when it was transferred to a new judge. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles McCoy dismissed the case as the ultimate sanction for what he termed “egregious” and “dishonest” con- duct by the plaintiffs (not their attorneys) in destroying and altering documents and stealing Disney documents from a company trash bin.
With his old nemesis Eisner gone, Fields believes things will be different at Disney.
“Eisner had his hands on everything. He controlled the culture,” says Fields. “I like Bob Iger, and I think he’ll change the corporate culture for the better.”
Does Fields envision ever representing the Mouse House?
“Represent Disney?” Fields ponders. “That’s an idea that would take a lot of getting used to.”