Lawyer to the stars Fields eclipsed by none
EmptyVisitors to the drab downtown Los Angeles courtroom of Judge John Shook this week will be forgiven for becoming a tad starstruck. Sure, the case of Cussler v. Crusader Entertainment pits a well-known author, Clive Cussler, against billionaire "Sahara" producer Philip Anschutz with $100 million in damages potentially at stake.
But in a trial whose witness list includes actor Matthew McConaughey and former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing, the biggest name in the room might still be the plaintiff's 77-year old attorney. Bert Fields is the Clint Eastwood of entertainment lawyers, a multihyphenate, seen-it-all figure who is seemingly becoming more productive after a half-century of practicing law.
The rules of the profession don't seem to apply to Fields. Nearly all entertainment lawyers choose to specialize in dealmaking or litigation; Fields does both. Most litigators avoid conflicts of interest by representing either talent or studios; Fields straddles both worlds, having represented A-listers like Tom Cruise and nearly every major studio except the Walt Disney Co., which he famously coaxed into a $250 million settlement with its former studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. It's no secret among attorneys that most name-partner rainmakers delegate the bulk of their work, but Fields' partners at the Greenberg Glusker firm in Century City insist he's still first in the office each morning, personally drafting most documents with his name on them. Despite daily sojourns home to Malibu for lunch and a quick nap, he again finished the year as the firm's top biller in both hours and revenue (he charges $900 an hour).
Despite being one of the few of entertainment lawyers who actually tries cases, colleagues say this is Fields' first jury trial in nearly five years. He last saw action in 2002 representing Brillstein-Grey Entertainment against producer Bo Zenga over profits from "Scary Movie," one of several cases that got Fields and his firm embroiled in the Anthony Pellicano wiretapping scandal. Fields has been under investigation since 2003, but the U.S. Attorney's office has stayed mum on its plans for him, and most insiders now believe Fields will not suffer the same fate as indicted attorney Terry Christensen. Still, the scandal has taken its toll on Fields' firm, which has seen such high-profile partners as Howard Weitzman and Dale Kinsella depart.
But during opening statements in the Cussler trial last week, Fields' only sign of fatigue was a slightly cracked voice, which didn't prevent him from ripping into opposing counsel Alan Rader's arguments before Rader even made them.
"I love it," Fields says of the courtroom stage. "It's drama, and you get a chance to be a director, a producer and an actor. And you have a captive audience."
The Cussler matter concerns allegations that Crusader, which produced "Sahara," denied Cussler promised creative control and that Cussler lied about the number of books he sold to get a better movie deal, costing Crusader millions. The high stakes are a far cry from the issues in Fields' first trial in 1955. "My client was accused of groping a vice squad officer in a downtown skid row movie," he recalls. "He was acquitted."
Fields often boasts that he has never lost a case, which lawyers know is misleading because most matters settle, and not always on favorable terms. In fact, Fields has spent the past few months arguing in the press rather than the courtroom, threatening litigation first against Sumner Redstone after Redstone cited Cruise's behavior as a reason for Paramount ending the actor's lucrative production deal and then against News Corp. after publisher Judith Regan was fired by the company's HarperCollins unit. Neither of those cases has resulted in litigation, which only makes the Cussler case more special -- a chance to see one of Hollywood's pure legal animals in his natural habitat.
Matthew Belloni is editor of The Hollywood Reporter, ESQ.