Company Town : A Former Agent's Field(s) of Dreams

Freddie Fields is sitting at Orso restaurant in West Hollywood musing about how great it would be to be a young agent today.

The man who was Hollywood's super agent of the 1970s is unabashedly sentimental about the past, but he's also awed by the revolutionary changes and vast opportunities that exist for agents today.

"If I was younger? Absolutely. I think you'd just have a ball. To have the swing of power. I could never beat up Jack Warner. I had to sell him and con him."

Fields, who rarely grants interviews, said the greatest differences between now and when he was an agent is that so much more is at stake economically and that agents have wrested power and control from the studios.

"Everything's gone from a million to a billion. The electronics world has come in and the [information] superhighway," he adds, noting how the new technologies are creating huge business prospects for agencies in the latter part of the 20th Century and in the future.

Fields has great respect for Michael Ovitz, who over the past months had been contemplating what Fields did two decades ago: leaving the agency business he dominates. Unlike Fields, Ovitz has decided to stay put, if only for the time being.

"Mike Ovitz has had a great time in this decade," Fields says. "He's done something that belongs to him in a unique way and that is he's stepped onto a whole new, faster track than agents ever did. He's gotten into corporate deals of other companies, he's in advertising--he's expanded the potential of the agency world."

Fields, who turns 72 next month, says: "In retrospect, unfortunately, I was much more confined to the talent representation business--my clients and their problems. I wish I had had the inclination or desire, which I didn't, to go into different things that Mike has gone into."

But Fields was considered the Mike Ovitz of his day--the most powerful agent of the late '60s and early '70s.

Granted, it was a very different day.

Like Ovitz's Creative Artists Agency today, the agency Fields and partner David Begelman launched in 1960, Creative Management Associates, vied with the William Morris Agency to rule Hollywood with a stellar client list that included such luminaries as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Henry Fonda, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Jackie Gleason. Not to mention some of the hottest musical acts of the day.

Fields says he is stunned by the size of today's star salaries. In his day, the most any of his top stars--Newman, McQueen, Redford or Kirk Douglas--got was $1 million a picture, "and that was considered obscene."

"Actors are getting $10 million to $15 million to $20 million a movie, directors are getting $5 million, writers are getting $3 million--those are gigantic multiples," says Fields, who argues that agents aren't to blame for the escalating costs.

"Supply and demand is what drives the prices up," he says. "How can an agent drive a price up unless someone says, 'I'll pay it?' "

Fields says that when McQueen was at the height of his career and certainly as big a star as anyone today, Fields would say to a studio, " 'I want $2 million for him,' and they'd say: 'Forget it. Is Paul Newman available?' There was a time when if you couldn't get Paul Newman, you might take Rock Hudson. Everything was done on the basis of 'We can't afford it' . . . That's not happening today."

Fields says he is also staggered by the cost of making and marketing movies today, alluding to Universal's mega-budget summer movie "Waterworld," which is the most expensive production ever at a reported $175 million. That's understandable since "A Star Is Born," starring Streisand, cost only $4.5 million, and "The Getaway," with McQueen, about $3 million.

Fields was a great believer in the back-end deal. He had a hard time persuading client Natalie Wood, "who couldn't get a movie at the time," to "take no money [upfront] but 10% of the gross from first dollar" for one of the leads in Paul Mazursky's 1969 comedy, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." Wood, who took her agent's advice, "made more money on that picture than she ever did in her life."

International Creative Management Chairman Jeff Berg, who was hired by Fields at CMA right out of college, says of his former boss: "Freddie was a very creative deal maker and an inventor. He knew how to make artists secure and make films happen for the studios and television shows happen for the networks."

Working for Fields, whom he considered a mentor, "and watching deals come together as a 22-year-old," Berg says, "was the equivalent of a six-year graduate program."

Fields, the son of a Catskill Mountains resort owner, began his career after serving in the Coast Guard for a small, independent New York booking agent named Abby Greschler, whom he helped to sign some huge acts, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. In 1946, he was wooed away by MCA, where he was a top agent until 1960, when he left to form his own management company.

Though at that time it was clear that the government was going to force MCA to choose between producing and agenting, Fields says he had such loyalty to his alma mater that he wouldn't start a competing agency--until the day in 1962 that MCA divested itself of the agency business.

"I had such a feeling for MCA emotionally," Fields says. He recalls "sitting in this little office we had and I had the MCA logo in front of me and I cut it into three different pieces, trying to make an anagram. Finally, I came up with CMA and used the same three block letters. I just somehow wanted to use those three letters."

CMA flourished, and its personal appearance and TV business more than tripled in 1968 when the partners acquired rival GAC and then took the merged agency public.

In the early '70s, the entrepreneurial Fields made another bold move when he founded First Artists Production Co., an independent cooperative in which original partners Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier (Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman joined later) could make any movie they wanted for a specific budget and own the negatives. Fields also took the company public, so the partners had tradable shares.

Five years and 18 negatives later--the list of films included "A Star Is Born," "The Getaway" and the "Uptown Saturday Night" series--the company went bust.

By 1975, Fields decided he had had enough of the agency business. He merged CMA with International Famous Agency and sold out to Marvin Josephson to form what became ICM.

"I felt I had made every deal. I had every client I would want and at that moment there were no other clients I wanted," Fields says.

Initially, he became a producer, then he joined MGM/UA (1980-84) as a production head before returning to independent filmmaking. His producing credits include "Glory," "Crimes of the Heart," "The Year of Living Dangerously" and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar."

Today, Fields, who is an executive producer of "The Montel Williams Show," is partnered with agent-turned-producer Jerome Hellman ("Midnight Cowboy," "Coming Home") in a production company involved in various movie, TV and new media projects.

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