Joel Fields Says It Was "Impossible to Say No" to 'Fosse/Verdon'

Joel Fields - Publicity - H 2019
Sarah Shatz/FX Networks

The Emmy-winning writer-producer behind FX's miniseries (and 'The Americans') talks about a career that's been on the rise since a string of arranged TV marriages.

When The Americans wrapped its six-season run in 2018, Joel Fields and his writing partner, Joe Weisberg, signed a lease on an airy Tribeca office space where they could catch their breath and consider potential next steps. Finding the right follow-up to the critically adored FX spy drama was, naturally, quite intimidating.

But within a month of their victory lap, an Emmy win for writing, Fields deferred his planned break and boarded FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon on the eve of production. The decision sent him right back to where he'd spent the previous six years, overseeing the production of a meticulous period piece — this time swapping the Cold War for Cabaret. "My plan after The Americans was to take a year, really focus on development, write and see what came next," says Fields, settling into a caramel leather couch in his office screening room. "But it was impossible for the theater nerd in me to say no to this."

Fosse/Verdon, a decade-spanning look at the creative and romantic partnership between choreographer-filmmaker Bob Fosse and dancer-actress Gwen Verdon, doubled as an interrogation of the auteur myth. It exposed Verdon's unsung role in Fosse's storied career. It also earned 17 Emmy nominations and four wins — including one for Michelle Williams' portrayal of Verdon. So now, almost a year to the day after he jumped into his unexpected Americans follow-up, Fields is really ready for that breather — maybe.

Outside a nondescript building just south of Canal Street, find the call button for "The Js" (Joe and Joel's shared nickname) and you'll be buzzed upstairs to a space that lends the impression nobody there gets much work done alone. Doors are left open. Rooms are separated by glass walls. It's like a startup, freckled with Soviet memorabilia.

For the 55-year-old Fields, staying in New York and with Weisberg represents a commitment to this latest act of his career. Eight years ago, he, wife Jessica and their two children uprooted their life in Los Angeles so that he could work on The Americans — though, looking at his résumé, his long tenure on the West Coast (three decades) reads as bit of an anomaly. The son of a famous rabbi, the late Harvey J. Fields, he had a fairly nomadic childhood that took him from Boston to New Jersey to Israel to Toronto. Even in college, Fields didn't stay put. He attended Pitzer College in Claremont, California — where he first became acquainted with his future boss, FX's John Landgraf, who gave him his campus tour — but spent semesters at Oxford and Harvard, studying literature, theater and philosophy.

"I had a naive sense that if I studied philosophy, I could learn how to be a good person," says Fields, laughing at the obvious comparison to the plot of NBC's The Good Place. "I don't know that I succeeded, but I learned that you can study philosophy."

Moving to Los Angeles after graduating in 1985, Fields did not pursue philosophy professionally. Instead, he quickly found himself in the then-thriving TV movie ecosystem. He produced more than 30 telepics between 1987 and 1997 — working on such titles as Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story and Cross of Fire. Fields wrote but was often credited only as a producer, and he became motivated to shift his career.

"I'd watched him come up from assistant at Hill-Mandelker Films to partner when it was renamed Hill-Fields," says Landgraf. "But he'd always wanted to be a writer."

Notes Fields, who began to segue into TV drama at the turn of the millennium, "It got to a point where the market became saturated with a lot of true-crime stuff that just wasn't that interesting to me." It was not an immediately successful transition, but he ultimately scored writer-producer jobs on series like Commander in Chief, Dirt and Rizzoli & Isles.

By 2012, Fields was a writer-producer with a reputation for problem-solving. He was also quite settled. He and his wife had just purchased their "dream home." But he had also come upon Weisberg's script for The Americans. Fields told Landgraf and fellow FX exec Eric Schrier of his affection for the pilot — and when FX committed to ordering the project to series, executives suggested pairing Weisberg with a more experienced producer. Fields' phone began to ring.

"It's like the calls you get when you're being fixed up on a date with someone who everybody believes you're really going to hit it off with," says Fields. " 'Oh, Joe Weisberg, he is the kind of person that you deserve to be with.' "

The fruits of Fields and Weisberg's professional marriage are evident in their series' rapturous reception from critics (and the fact that they're friends). The 1980s-set drama about Russian spies posing as the perfect American family ranked among the best-reviewed series on TV for its entire run — earning WGA Awards, a Golden Globe for best drama, two Peabodys, multiple AFI accolades and, ultimately, Emmys for the duo's work writing the series finale and for lead Matthew Rhys. Its finale was expected to bring a bit of meditative calm to its two showrunners — but, for five months straddling 2018 and 2019, it meant more producer matchmaking for Fields.

Fosse/Verdon suffered no lack of big names with Dear Evan Hansen playwright Steven Levenson, Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, and stars Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams all on its executive producer roster. What the miniseries didn't have was someone experienced in the TV trickery of making freezing cold Montauk look like Majorca in the summer or ensuring that studio floors were suitable for rigorous dance numbers. Dana Walden, who oversaw studio Fox 21 during her posts at both Fox and Disney, and FX's Gina Balian both suggested Fields again be the one to round out the production. It helped that he wasn't exactly a stranger to the material. While working on The Americans, he and David Lee wrote a new book for Cole Porter's Can-Can — the 1953 show that solidified Verdon as a Broadway star.

"I probably would not have made a show that was just about Fosse," Landgraf says of Fosse/Verdon's having aired in a climate that's reassessing professional relationships between men and women — especially in Hollywood. "And it takes a while to be ready for nuance. I don't think if you'd made The People v. O.J. Simpson two or three years after the trial that the audience would have been ready. That's the value in taking another look at stories like these so many years later."

Though Fields did Fosse/Verdon without Weisberg, the pair have since returned to their post-Americans incubator — one that conspicuously lacks a big table like the kind you normally see in writers rooms.

"Sometimes the danger is sitting in a room where you can just bounce from iteration to iteration to iteration," says Fields, whose habit of breaking story on walks earned the nickname "Joel strolls" while working on Ugly Betty. Even now, he and Weisberg often debate on the streets of lower Manhattan — without, as he's quick to point out, any note-taking apparatus: "When I started to work with Steven Bochco, he told me not to worry about taking too many notes. If it's a good idea, you'll remember it."

Right now, the Js are writing several projects under their pact with FX Productions and developing another with friend Josh Brand. Fields, keen to make something he can watch with his children, also recently started developing an old script at Disney+. And there remains the distinct possibility of the phone ringing again, with someone suggesting another match. As much as he seems focused on his own ideas at the moment, you sense that Fields gets a kick out of working with younger writers and those who have less TV experience. "I feel very lucky in that regard," says Fields. "I'm not old, but I've been around a long time."

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.