A master dealmaker, he had as clients Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, the Beatles and many others, becoming something of a celebrity himself.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
Bert Fields, the colorful and canny dean of Hollywood lawyers whose services were called on by superstars and studios alike knowing they would get a no-holds-barred defense and all but assured of some measure of victory, died on Sunday at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 93.
The cause was complications of long Covid-19, his wife, Barbara Guggenheim, said.
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.
Urbane, trim and Savile Row-tailored, Mr. Fields became something of a celebrity himself, garnering magazine profiles and regular gossip-column mentions.
Besides offering examples of his legal acumen, the press took note of a bon vivant lifestyle that mirrored those of his clients — the chauffeured Bentley Arnage (cost: $250,000) with which he navigated Los Angeles, the homes he owned in Malibu, Manhattan, Mexico and France, and the $100 bottles of wines served at dinner parties.
Among his most famous cases was his fierce representation of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, against the Walt Disney Company, for denying Mr. Katzenberg contractual bonuses of $250 million for such hits as “The Lion King” and “The Little Mermaid” when he was that studio’s chairman, from 1984 to 1994. Mr. Fields conducted a withering cross-examination of Michael Eisner, then the Disney chief, revealing that Mr. Eisner had once told the co-author of his autobiography that he detested Mr. Katzenberg.
“I hate the little midget,” Mr. Eisner had said, according to Mr. Fields’s courtroom questioning.
The revelation so angered Mr. Eisner that he rose from the witness chair and warned Mr. Fields that he was pushing him too hard. The impression left by the exchange discomfited the Disney company, which had built its reputation on lovable dwarfs, among other animated characters, and on the kindly and paternal studio heads it presented on television. It settled the lawsuit for the full $250 million, more than triple the amount ever given to an individual in a Hollywood lawsuit, according to Variety.
When the producer Harvey Weinstein and his brother, Bob, wanted to split off their Miramax production company from Disney, a trial seemed inevitable. But Mr. Fields, aware of Disney’s wariness of him, worked out a deal in which Disney got to keep the Miramax name and its library of 550 films; in return, it had to give the Weinsteins $130 million to start a new film company.
“In the entertainment business walking into litigation without Bert Fields is like walking into the Arctic without a jacket,” Harvey Weinstein, who is now in prison for sex crimes, once told The New York Times.
Mr. Fields represented Michael Jackson in a civil case growing out of accusations in 1993 that he had molested an underage boy, a case that was settled for over $20 million but in which Jackson admitted no wrongdoing. Mr. Fields also warded off further damage from a number of writers who had examined Tom Cruise’s membership in Scientology, which they branded a cult, by threatening them with defamation suits.
When the Beatles-owned company Apple Corps Ltd. wanted to block the tribute band “Beatlemania” from recreating classic Beatles performances with look-alikes and imitations of its trademarks, it hired Mr. Fields. He persuaded a judge in Los Angeles to order the producers to pay Apple Corps $5.6 million plus interest for commercial exploitation.
When Warren Beatty protested a decision to cut four minutes from his film “Reds” (1981) for showing on television, he retained Mr. Fields, who secured for him, as the director, the right to make final cuts.
In 2006, the editor Judith Regan dispatched Mr. Fields to squelch charges of antisemitism that might have killed her career. She had paid O.J. Simpson $800,000 for a book, “If I Did It,” which she then promoted with a TV interview in which he seemingly confessed to murdering his ex-wife.
Harper Collins, the publisher, pulled the plug on the project and then fired Ms. Regan, saying she had complained that a Jewish cabal at the publishing house was out to get her. Mr. Fields spoke to various media outlets and cautioned them that as a Jew he did not feel her remarks, even if accurately reported, were bigoted, and that accusing her of making biased statements was defamatory.
After Ms. Regan sued, Harper Collins settled the case and issued a statement saying, “After carefully considering the matter, we accept Ms. Regan’s position that she did not say anything that was anti-Semitic in nature, and further believe that Ms. Regan is not anti-Semitic.”
Mr. Fields once explained his legal strategy to the journalist Ken Auletta over a glass of chardonnay at Spago, the famed Hollywood hangout. “If I were a general, I would attack and keep pressing the attack — to throw the opponent off balance, to change the odds and make a settlement your way much more favorable,” he said. “It forces the other side to think: Hey, I may lose this case. Let’s settle it.”
Mr. Fields’s wile was apparent when the author Barbara Chase-Riboud filed a $10 million lawsuit against DreamWorks accusing it of using material from her historical novel for its 1997 film “Amistad,” directed by Steven Spielberg, about a slave ship revolt.
Mr. Fields retaliated during a joint appearance with her on CNN by pointing out that a passage in her novel was identical to that of another Amistad account. He declined to use the word plagiarism, but Ms. Chase-Riboud settled out of court, even praising the movie as a “splendid piece of work” and adding that its producers did nothing improper.
Mr. Fields cultivated the impression that he had never lost a case, yet all but a handful of lawsuits were settled out of court and not always as lucratively as his clients had expected. Madonna’s 2004 breach-of-contract lawsuit against Warner Music was settled for $10 million, not the $200 million she had sought.
Mr. Fields’s reputation was clouded in 2002 when federal investigators began scrutinizing the activities of the private eye he often employed, Anthony Pellicano, and learning that that rough-edge detective had illegally wiretapped many subjects of lawsuits to ferret out incriminating information and legal strategies. Mr. Pellicano was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but Mr. Fields was not charged.
“I never knew there was any wiretapping going on, never,” he told CNN.
Nevertheless he admitted that those years were a “tough time,” and the taint of cutthroat legal tactics clung to him afterward.
Bertram Harris Fields was born on March 31, 1929, in Los Angeles. His mother, Mildred (Rubin) Fields, was a retired ballet dancer who read both 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 adolescence, Bert’s father joined the Army, despite being in his 40s. Bert was dispatched to live with an aunt in San Francisco and then to a boardinghouse in Los Angeles, where he lived while attending high school. He supported himself by earning money as a caddy.
He eventually attended U.C.L.A. and then Harvard Law School and after graduation in 1952 married Amy Markson. With the Korean War on, he served as a lawyer in the Air Force’s Judge Advocates office, 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 her death 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 involving a painting she acquired for him. In addition to her, he is survived by a son from his first marriage, James, and two grandchildren.
Early in his career, Mr. Fields did some acting, appearing as a prosecutor in an episode of the TV police drama “Dragnet”; Jack Webb, the show’s creator and star, was a client. Soon he acquired other clients — Edward G. Robinson, Peter Falk and Elaine May — and formed a profitable friendship with the superagent Michael Ovitz, who referred to him more luminous names, like Dustin Hoffman. In 1982, Mr. Fields merged his firm with another, to become the entertainment powerhouse Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger.
Mr. Fields prided himself on his interests outside the law. 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 evaluation of “Richard III,” and a third that was a fictionalized biography of Shylock.
He also wrote two mystery novels under the pseudonym D. Kincaid, where his alter ego, an attorney named Harry Cain, relies on a shady private investigator who occasionally conducts illegal wiretaps.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.
Bert Fields, Lawyer to the Hollywood Elite, Dies at 93 – The New York Times