Bert Fields, the colorful and shrewd doyen of Hollywood lawyers whose services were sought after by superstars and studios alike knowing they would get a no-holds-barred defense and almost certain victory, died Sunday at his home in Malibu. , Calif. He was 93 years old.
The cause was complications from long-standing covid-19, said his wife, Barbara Guggenheim.
Over the decades, stars and studio heads who turned to Mr. Fields included Madonna, Tom Cruise, Warren Beatty, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Dustin Hoffman, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Urban, svelte and Saville Row fit, Mr. Fields became something of a celebrity, earning magazine profiles and regular mentions in gossip columns.
In addition to offering examples of his legal acumen, the press took note of a bon vivant lifestyle that mirrored that of his clients: the chauffeur-driven Bentley Arnage (cost: $250,000) in which he cruised around Los Angeles, the homes he owned in Malibu, Manhattan, Mexico. and France, and the $100 bottles of wine served at dinner.
Among his most famous cases was his fierce representation of DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg against the Walt Disney Company for denying Katzenberg $250 million in contract bonuses for hits like “The Lion King” and “The Little Mermaid.” ” when he was president of that studio, from 1984 to 1994. Mr. Fields conducted a withering cross-examination of Michael Eisner, then the head of Disney, revealing that Mr. Eisner had once told his autobiography co-author that he hated to Mr. Katzenberg.
“I hate the little dwarf,” Eisner had said, according to Fields’ questioning in court.
The revelation so enraged Mr. Eisner that he got up from the witness chair and warned Mr. Fields that he was pushing him too hard. The impression left by the exchange baffled the Disney company, which had built its reputation on lovable midgets, among other animated characters, and on the kind, fatherly studio bosses it featured on television. The lawsuit was settled for the full $250 million, more than triple the amount awarded to an individual in a Hollywood lawsuit, according to Variety.
When producer Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob wanted to separate their Miramax production company from Disney, a lawsuit seemed inevitable. But Mr. Fields, aware of Disney’s wariness of him, struck a deal in which Disney kept the Miramax name and its 550-film library; in exchange, he had to give the Weinsteins $130 million to start a new film company.
“In the entertainment business going into litigation without Bert Fields is like going into the Arctic without a jacket,” Harvey Weinstein, now in prison for sex crimes, once told the New York Times.
Mr. Fields represented Michael Jackson in a civil case stemming from allegations in 1993 that he had sexually abused a minor child, a case that settled for more than $20 million but in which Jackson did not admit acted wrong Mr. Fields also prevented further damage from several writers who had examined Tom Cruise’s membership in Scientology, which they branded as a cult, by threatening them with libel suits.
When the Beatles-owned company Apple Corps Ltd. wanted to stop the “Beatlemania” tribute band from recreating classic Beatles performances with imitations and imitations of their trademarks, it hired Fields. He convinced a Los Angeles judge to order the producers to pay Apple Corps $5.6 million plus interest for commercial exploitation.
When Warren Beatty protested the decision to cut four minutes of his film “Reds” (1981) to show it on television, he hired Mr. Fields, who assured him, as director, the right to make final cuts.
In 2006, publisher Judith Regan sent Fields to hush up charges of anti-Semitism that could have ended his career. He had paid OJ Simpson $800,000 for a book, “If I Did It,” which he later promoted with a television interview in which he apparently confessed to murdering his ex-wife.
Harper Collins, the publisher, pulled the plug on the project and later fired Ms. Regan, saying she had complained that a Jewish cabal at the publisher was trying to get her. Mr. Fields spoke to several media outlets and warned them that, as a Jew, he did not feel that her comments, however accurately reported, were bigoted, and that accusing her of making biased statements was defamatory.
After Mrs. Regan sued, HarperCollins solved the case and issued a statement that said, “After careful consideration of the matter, we accept Ms. Regan’s position that she did not say anything of an anti-Semitic nature, and we further believe that Ms. Regan is not anti-Semitic.”
Fields once explained his legal strategy to journalist Ken Auletta over a glass of chardonnay at Spago, the famous Hollywood hangout. “If I were a general, I would attack and keep pressing the attack, to throw the opponent off balance, change the odds and make a deal that much more favorable,” he said. “It forces the other party to think: Hey, I can lose this case. Let’s fix it.”
Fields’ ruse became apparent when author Barbara Chase-Riboud filed a $10 million lawsuit against DreamWorks accusing her of using material from her historical novel for her 1997 film “Friendship,” directed by Steven Spielberg, about a riot of slave ships.
Mr. Fields retaliated during a joint appearance with her on CNN by pointing out that a passage in her novel was identical to another Amistad story. He refused to use the word plagiarism, but Chase-Riboud settled out of court, even praising the film as a “splendid piece of work” and adding that his producers did nothing inappropriate.
Mr. Fields cultivated the impression that he had never lost a case, yet all but a handful of his lawsuits were settled out of court and not always as lucratively as his clients had hoped. Madonna’s 2004 breach of contract lawsuit against Warner Music settled for $10 million, not the $200 million she had sought.
Mr. Fields’ reputation was tarnished in 2002 when federal investigators began examining the activities of the private detective he often employed, Anthony Pellicano, and learned that this cutting-edge detective had illegally wiretapped many lawsuit subjects to uncover incriminating information and legal strategies. Mr. Pellicano was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but Mr. Fields was not charged.
“I never knew wiretaps were going on, never,” he told CNN.
However, he admitted that those years were “a difficult time”, and that the stain of ruthless legal tactics clung to him afterwards.
Bertram Harris Fields was born on March 31, 1929 in Los Angeles. His mother, Mildred (Rubin) Fields, was a retired ballet dancer who read The Wall Street Journal and The Communist Daily Worker. His father, F. Maxwell Fields, was an eye surgeon whose patients included Groucho Marx and Mae West.
In his teens, Bert’s father joined the army, despite being 40 years old. Bert was sent to live with an aunt in San Francisco and then to a boarding house in Los Angeles, where he lived while attending high school. He supported himself by making money as a caddy.
He eventually attended UCLA and then Harvard Law School and after graduating in 1952 he married Amy Markson. With the Korean War underway, he worked as a lawyer in the Air Force Judge Advocates office and then went to work for a Beverly Hills law firm. There he handled the divorce of a fashion model, Lydia Menovich, and fell in love with her; she became his second wife. They were married for 27 years, until she died of lung cancer in 1986.
He met Ms. Guggenheim, an art consultant and his third wife, when he defended her against a lawsuit by Sylvester Stallone related to a painting she bought from him. In addition to her, she is survived by a son from her first marriage, James, and two grandchildren.
Early in his career, Mr. Fields did some acting, appearing as a prosecutor in an episode of the television police drama “Dragnet”; Jack Webb, the show’s creator and star, was a customer. He soon landed other clients—Edward G. Robinson, Peter Falk, and Elaine May—and struck up a fruitful friendship with super-agent Michael Ovitz, who referred him to more luminous names like Dustin Hoffman. In 1982, Mr. Fields merged his company with another to become entertainment powerhouse Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger.
Mr. Fields prided himself on his outlaw interests. He was an expert on Shakespeare and wrote three books: one that argued that Shakespeare had a secret writing partner, another that was a revisionist assessment of “Richard III,” and a third that was a fictional biography of Shylock.
He also wrote two mystery novels under the pseudonym D. Kincaid, where his alter ego, a lawyer named Harry Cain, is based on a shady private investigator who occasionally conducts illegal wiretapping.
Alex Traub contributed report.