Bert Fields' Greatest Hits
The archetypal Hollywood lawyer, Fields takes no prisoners when representing his famous clients
Published in 2004 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 26, 2004
Updated on October 20, 2016
Bert Fields strokes the wood. His hand slowly, rhythmically rubs the conference table in his office in such a lewd way that a nearby portrait of George Washington nearly turns pink with embarrassment. All the while, stroke after stroke, Bert Fields grins like the cat who ate the canary. Suddenly he goes red in the face and shouts, “He’s probably a goddamn faggot.”
Then he clarifies one thing: “Those are not my words. Those were the words of the redneck cop.”This thespian is Hollywood’s top litigator, and his dramatic scene — including performing an indecent act on his office furniture — is actually a reenactment from one of his favorite courtroom moments.
As the story goes, sometime around the Reagan years a well-positioned actor (and no, Fields won’t disclose his name) was arrested in an adult-movie theater for caressing the penis of a plainclothes cop. Since the actor was of the leading-man variety, any such impropriety — not to mention any hint of homosexuality — would derail his career.
Enter Bert Fields. “I was convinced that the guy was innocent. I figured the cop saw him at a porn film; the cop probably wanted to make the vice squad and this was his shot,” says Fields. “But he was a dumb cop.”
During cross-examination Fields suggested to the officer on the stand that maybe he was just grazed by the defendant, but the cop, percolating under such embarrassing questioning, insisted that he had been fondled. When asked for how long, the officer replied 40 seconds.
Fields held that nugget of testimony until his defense summation. Then, reminding the jury of the officer’s statement, he massaged the panel in front of the jury box while counting to 40.“They had their watches out and by the time we got to 15 seconds, they were roaring at how ridiculous it was,” he says. “One stroke and the offense was made, right? You can arrest him. But why would he stand there and take that? What were they talking about? The guy was a stupid cop.”The jury agreed.
Score another win for Fields, whose ardent love for all things legal cannot be contained. “The intellectual challenges of law are terrific. They’re a puzzle, a big game. It’s like six-dimensional chess,” he says. His audacity for drama is legendary, as is his nearly unbroken winning streak and reputation for being aggressive during courtroom proceedings and contract talks. Appropriately, Vanity Fair once coronated him “the most feared lawyer in Hollywood.”
On this afternoon, though, the fearsome Fields is fighting a cold. At age 74, he’s lean and tan and has a face like Robert Stack, complete with powerfully calm eyes. Wearing a tan cardigan and khakis while nursing a mug of tea, though, he does not command fear.
Neither do his surroundings. In a city where every laundromat and donut shop prominently display autographed celebrity headshots, Fields’ office is conspicuously absent of any tokens of Hollywood clout. It is instead a bookish den with paddedleather furniture, dark paneled woods and scores of leather-bound books.
But don’t let the trappings or the sniffles fool you: Fields has mined Tinseltown’s legal landscape for so many victories that he’s become an icon of entertainment law. Since 1982 he’s been a partner at Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman, Machtinger & Kinsella LLP, whose offices are appropriately located 20 floors above the Avenue of the Stars in Century City.
Thoroughly enjoying the august years of his career, Fields is right at home inside the Hollywood maelstrom. He’s fiercely loyal to his star clients, like Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. And he’s spent many years with Tom Cruise, often fighting the rumors of homosexuality that dangle around Cruise’s career like an albatross. (No, Cruise is not the subject of the aforementioned anecdote.)
“The guy is really not gay,” says Fields, straining his voice above a whisper. “But he’s a very good-looking guy. If I were gay, he might be my fantasy.” Fields says that most of the people he’s sued on Cruise’s behalf just want some fame, like the gay porn wrestler in England who claimed to have pinned Cruise inside and outside the ring. “Tom wasn’t even in England at the time. But it is a way for people to make some money from the Enquirer and the Star, who pay for that kind of stuff.” Fields has successfully dealt with them all, either winning a retraction from the publication or a monetary settlement; but alas, these people — and there are a lot of them — are often judgment-proof. “We’ve got a $10 million judgment against … I’ve forgotten which one. But we’ll probably never collect it.”
In return for his relentless loyalty, Fields expects his charges to follow his advice and is not above dismissing a client who doesn’t. Case in point: Michael Jackson. Fields helped Jackson pocket one of the most lucrative recording contracts ever with Sony, only to later drop him as a client when Jackson was accused of child molestation in the early 1990s — but not because he thought Jackson was a creep.
“I think he was not guilty,” Fields states solemnly. “I think he had a strong defense case. I think if he had fought it, he would have won.”
It’s worth noting that a key figure in this particular case was private investigator Anthony Pellicano, who is currently in prison for possession of illegal explosives. Pellicano, whom Fields has often hired in the past, had a reputation for gathering knowledge through unsavory methods, including intimidation. He was called on to see what he could dig up about Jackson’s accusers.
“I don’t know what his tactics are for getting information,” says Fields of Pellicano. “That may seem odd to you, but Anthony loves to be mysterious. He has done fantastic things. When I say, ‘How did you do that?’ he will say, ‘I have my sources.’”
Against Fields’ advice, Jackson chose to pursue an out-of-court settlement and subsequently lost his litigator. “His career has just never been the same,” says Fields.
To be so powerful as to fire the king of pop undoubtedly means having to face the toughest forces in show business on a regular basis. None are so formidable, perhaps, than Disney, which Fields has battled often.
“It’s nothing special,” he says about his conflicts with the entertainment superpower. “I just happen to have gotten into fights with them. And they have a proclivity to be tougher than most. So you don’t settle as often.”
Among other victories, he won a unanimous jury verdict against Disney’s right to use MGM’s name in theme parks in Europe. Most recently he represented a party suing Disney for money owed them from the merchandising of Winnie the Pooh. Although he had to withdraw as attorney (he won’t discuss the reasons), he says the case against Disney is still strong and he expects a big judgment against them. “Winnie the Pooh was a great hero of mine growing up, and I enjoyed being [his] lawyer for a time.”
Then there was the notorious spring of 1999 when perhaps his most astonishing courtroom drama unfolded, again with Disney at the vortex.When the chairman of the studio division, Jeffrey Katzenberg, left the mouse house to start Dreamworks SKG (with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg), he claimed he was owed a honeypot of cash — to the tune of $250 million.
During the proceedings, Disney CEO Michael Eisner was on the stand and it became clear that, even for the most powerful man in Hollywood, being in Fields’ crosshairs is not the happiest place on Earth.
Fields attempted to show that Eisner never intended to pay various bonuses to Katzenberg because of a personal row between the two. Thus began a grueling line of questioning from Fields, who sourced the notes Eisner had made preparing to write his autobiography.
“Did Mr. Katzenberg grate on you?”
“Did you say that Mr. Katzenberg was the ‘tip of your pompon’?”
“Did you say, ‘I think I hate the little midget’?”
Today, Fields still finds what Eisner did next to unbelievable. “That was the only time in all these years when a witness pointed to me and said, ‘You are getting into areas that are ill advised … and not in your client’s best interest,’” he says.“The judge just rolled his eyes … I was thrilled. If I were that judge, I would say to myself, ‘What an arrogant ass.’” In the end, Fields chalked up a “landmark” resolution for Katzenberg.
“People always ask me, do I hate Michael Eisner? No, I don’t hate Michael Eisner.As a matter of fact, I find him rather charming in a social setting — not that we’re social friends,” says Fields. “I just disagree with his judgment on so many things.”
It might bode well for folks in town to heed Fields’ judgment; he has taken to his calling as naturally as a gunslinger to a Colt .45. He’s a native Californian who attended UCLA. Though his father, a surgeon, wanted him to follow in his shoes, Fields chose to pursue law. He was accepted to Harvard Law School, made law review and graduated magna cum laude. During the Korean War he developed his legal chops as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, trying several courts-martial cases a day, most of them going his way.
Fields then returned to Los Angeles and joined a small firm, where destiny strolled into his office riding atop the squared shoulders of Dragnet actor Jack Webb. As Webb’s attorney, he gained knowledge of complex entertainment contracts, but he says that it was during this tenure that he learned a simple but valuable lesson.
Webb sent Fields to deal with Lew Wasserman, the notorious mogul of MCA, in an effort to avoid a potential legal dust-up.
“I had a number of points to go over, and when I got to, say, point seven, I said, ‘You know, it isn’t really fair that MCA would take this position.’ [Wasserman] then rose up and turned bright red.” Fields says he was thrown out of the office with the irascible Wasserman barking that he would see Webb in court and fight him to the death.
While still shell-shocked, Fields agreed to another meeting. He had the same list of concerns, but he refrained from editorializing, and the meeting ended amicably.“I sure as hell got out-psyched,” says Fields, shaking his head in amusement. “I think it was all an act. But it was a great negotiating tactic.”
Never get out-psyched. It’s a lesson that has paid off through the years as Fields honed his own aggressive posturing, enjoyed victory after victory and stuffed his Rolodex with Oscar and Grammy winners, best-selling authors and other entertainment elite.
His wins piled up like a poker champion’s chips in Vegas: He grabbed a multimillion-dollar award from the producers of Beatlemania for the Beatles; helped George Harrison win back millions from his former business manager; saved Warren Beatty from Paramount Studios’ demand to cut four minutes from his film Reds — then turned around and successfully argued against his own precedent-setting case for Artisan’s right to trim down Michael Cimino’s The Sicilian.
Today he plays nothing but hardball, as evidenced by the “Sopranos” conflict of 2003. When leading actor James Gandolfini filed suit against HBO for a more lucrative contract, Fields, who represented HBO, slapped a $100 million countersuit against Gandolfini for breach of contract. Gandolfini dropped his suit, settled his dispute and returned to work.
Never get out-psyched — and never underestimate the power of a good prank. Fields’ high-stakes drama extends beyond the courtroom. In one of his favorite stories, he recalls representing the best-selling author Mario Puzo (The Godfather). For writing the Superman screenplay, Puzo was owed a percentage of the gross from the movie’s profits. Producer Alexander Salkind argued that Puzo’s screenplay was so bad that he shouldn’t have to pay. So Fields traveled to San Remo, Italy, to take Salkind’s deposition in an outdoor plaza.As Fields asked Salkind if Puzo failed to live up to his contract, he gave a pre-arranged signal and Puzo emerged from behind a nearby bush and sat down at the table.
“I was betting that Salkind was not going to say to Puzo’s face that his screenplay was such a mess that it was a breach of contract,” says Fields.The gamble worked.Against his attorney’s advice, Salkind praised Puzo for not just delivering everything outlined by the contract, but also doing it brilliantly. “The case was over,” says Fields, smiling with his canary-eating grin.
So is Fields ready to stop taking those kinds of chances? He sips his tea, then scoffs at the notion of retiring anytime soon. “I like it so much. I feel comfortable in court. I think about it a little like the Spanish bullfighter Manolete. You get closer and closer to the horns of the bull — someday you’ll probably be gored. But I’ve dodged goring for some time now.”
—At the time this story went to press, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mr. Fields was being investigated by a federal grand jury for allegations concerning illegal wire-tapping. This development stems from a probe of private investigator Anthony Pellicano. Fields has stated that he has never had anything to do with illegal wire-tapping.