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CRITIC AT LARGE

Fields: From An Agent To Passionate Producer

June 20, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Later, when the history of Hollywood is looked back upon and divided into tidy segments ("The Primitive Years," "The Rise of the Moguls," and so on), a third at least of the postwar century will have to be called "The Age of the Agents."

With the passing of the founding fathers, who seldom left or were allowed to leave any heirs apparent, the talent agents as a breed proved to have the entrepreneurial zeal, the know-how, the clients and the proximity that enabled them to fill the power vacuum atop the industry.

The procession was led, of course, by Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman, whose MCA became a studio, Universal. Many of the other heavy hitters, packagers or studio executives, have been their alumni.

You can get an argument as to whether the agent-managers have been as creative as film makers as they've been as deal-makers, but the answer is so entwined with the rise of television, shrinkage of the movie audience and inflation of costs that all generalizations are suspect. It is not certain what Mayer, Cohn or the Warners would have done in the present market.

One of MCA's most conspicuous children, in a manner of speaking, is Freddie Fields. Son of a pioneer Catskill Mountains resort owner, Fields started in the agency business in New York after wartime service in the Coast Guard. When he joined MCA, it was already so large (something like 400 agents worldwide) that his turf was the cocktail lounge and small-acts department, Manhattan East Side branch. Later, he got the big Canadian hotels and was on his way.

When MCA was forced to choose between producing (as owner of Universal) and agenting, and gave up agenting, Fields in 1960 spun off and founded Creative Management Associates. By the time he sold his interest in 1975 to concentrate on being a producer, CMA vied with William Morris as a heavyweight Hollywood agency, its client list ranging from Woody Allen to Paul Newman by way of Steven Spielberg and Francis Coppola. The agent alumni include Alan Ladd Jr., Mike Medavoy and David Begelman.

After what he calls a caretaker assignment as president and chief operating officer at MGM in the early '80s, Fields is an individual producer again. His current projects are Richard Brooks' drama about compulsive gambling, "The Fever," with Ryan O'Neal, and "Poltergeist II" with the original cast, special effects by Richard Edlund and visual designs by H. R. Giger, the Swiss artist who had a big hand in the eeriness of "Alien."

"The recognition of the producer's importance went into a decline maybe 15 years ago," Fields says, "and the director took over. But now that's changing again. The right producer gives the director an extra pair of eyes, watches costs, holds things together below the line. I mean, if the electrical department goofs up, the whole thing unravels. You've got to know everything, be there all the time. I learned from my father in the hotel business, you've got to watch the store.

"I was a line agent. Never wanted to sit in the tower. I always find that that one hour you're not keeping an eye on things, something goes the way you wouldn't have done it. That's the reality."

Fields thinks negotiations in picture making would go better if producers, not studio departments, handled them. "I always figured that working one on one gives you a little edge--you can get some passion into it that a studio can't. And if somebody's dealing with a studio, they figure, 'Ask for the moon; it's just an anonymous corporation.' You can't fight the costs that way. The deals I made for locations, hotels on 'The Fever' a studio couldn't have done."

He believes in passion, he says, and looked for it in the people he hired at CMA. "I figured if they could sell me, they could sell somebody else," Fields says. "You can't say, 'I want to be an agent,' you have to want to be an agent. You've got to love it. It's a visceral need, the desire to represent other people and make them rich and famous--it's 24 hours a day if you do it right. I took Jeff Berg right out of Berkeley; he spent a year in my office and now he's president of the agency.

"But it's the same thing being a producer. It takes a certain amount of passion to be a real producer, not a packaging producer."

Fields admits that there's not a lot of creative passion at the top of the industry these days. "Everybody looks for the nice, safe mega-hits," he says, "and the fizzles are very, very expensive. But there's a reluctance among executives to express their own passion, or taste, and act on it. That's why so many hits have come out of turnaround, projects that people wouldn't take a chance on.

"Think of it: 'E.T.,' 'American Graffiti,' 'Terms of Endearment,' 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' . . . for 10 years, nobody would touch 'Cuckoo's Nest.' Unbelievable."

The audience, Fields believes, is changing in subtle ways. "It's a young audience, we all know that," he says, "but it's prepared to be involved. That's a change over the last few years. The young audience goes to see 'Witness' and 'Amadeus.' They don't necessarily have to be fed garbage. You can get them with a good movie. Take a chance on your passion."

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