Hollywood came together on Sunday to pay tribute to Bert Fields, the legendary lawyer who was in the midst of high-profile battles spanning decades. Fields died in August at the age of 93.
Among those who paid tribute to him were Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dustin Hoffman and Michael Ovitz, who each remembered him as a loyal friend. Elaine May and Tom Cruise also recorded video tributes which were played for the public at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
Cruise, a longtime Fields client, remembered him as “someone I knew I could always rely on.”
“I think we all know how precious that is in this world – when someone says they’re going to do something and they actually do it,” Cruise said. “I’m just very grateful to him.”
With a courteous manner and a list of high-profile clients, Fields developed a reputation as Hollywood’s most formidable lawyer. His widow, Barbara Guggenheim, said after his death a friend said he now felt “unprotected”.
“That’s how we all feel,” she said. “Whether you’re Bert’s client or a friend, you always knew Bert was in your back pocket. And that any time of the day or night you could take him out and call him and he would help you anyway. We all miss it.
Another client, Susan Estrich, told the audience that Fields “loved to stand up for each and every one of you.”
“Bert scared people with good reason,” she said. “With Bert by my side, I always felt safe.”
Katzenberg hired Fields to represent him in his legal battle with Disney, after he was fired in 1994. The legal battle ended with a $250 million settlement in favor of Katzenberg.
Whenever they ate together afterward, Katzenberg always arranged ahead of time to collect the check.
“After all, he made me rich,” Katzenberg recalled.
Fields became irritated and eventually managed to pay the check, telling the restaurant it was Katzenberg’s birthday.
“At the end I was shocked and somewhat embarrassed and tried to protest when the waiters serenaded me with ‘Happy Birthday’, along with a cake with candles and sparklers”, Katzenberg said. “It was in June. My birthday is in December.”
In her recorded tribute, May recounted how Fields helped her during her legal battle with Paramount over “Mikey and Nicky,” her 1976 gangster film. Fields maximized her influence in the legal fight by settling to hide a cut of the film from the studio – without May knowing he had done so. She said the studio threatened to have her criminally prosecuted for stealing the film.
At one point, she said Fields delivered a withering line to the studio: “You wouldn’t do that to a man.”
Hoffman, a client of Fields since the 1970s, choked during his speech. He recalled a time when Fields prepped him for a deposition, telling him to answer briefly and answer only the question posed to him. Once in the deposition, Hoffman ignored his advice and immediately started rambling. Fields called for a break, then scolded him, “What the hell were you doing?”
Hoffman recalled that they also shared a lot in common.
“He loved an audience,” Hoffman recalled. “He often spoke to me about how the courtroom was a form of theatre. He knew his audience. He knew how to relate to them, and he knew how to connect with them emotionally and intellectually…. What I respected most was his loyalty – he was a friend, a true friend. I miss him.”
Ovitz remembers meeting Fields in the mid-1970s when he started CAA. He said he was told Fields had the power to put him out of business and so he went and tried to convince him. At the end of a 15-minute meeting, he wrote Fields a check for $5, with the word “down payment” in the memo line.
“You are now the CAA attorney,” Ovitz told him. “You can never sue us because you are in conflict.”
Later, he saw that Fields had framed the check and hung it behind his desk. They went on to jointly represent many of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 1980s.
“He took his practice very seriously,” Ovitz said. “He liked Davids. He hated Goliaths… He never looked stressed. He never seemed to be bothered by a court case. In all the hundreds of meetings I’ve had with him, no matter how tense, Bert had a smile on his face. Maybe because he knew he was going to win. “