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Freddie Fields, 1923 - 2007

Veteran Hollywood talent agent and studio executive

December 13, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Freddie Fields, a onetime vaudeville booker who became a high-flying Hollywood talent agent for such stars as Judy Garland, Henry Fonda, Steve McQueen and Barbra Streisand, and who later headed production at MGM and United Artists studios, has died. He was 84.

Fields, who also produced the critically acclaimed 1989 Civil War epic "Glory," died of lung cancer Tuesday at his home in Beverly Hills, his longtime friend and publicist Warren Cowan said.

Considered the Michael Ovitz of his era, Fields and his late partner, David Begelman, formed Creative Management Associates in 1960. The firm became the forerunner of today's International Creative Management, one of the world's biggest talent agencies.

In 1969, Fields brought together some of Hollywood's biggest stars -- McQueen, Streisand, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Dustin Hoffman -- and formed First Artists.

"We lived through a very exciting time together," Streisand said Wednesday in a statement. "He was a very creative thinker. I always enjoyed his company. It's the end of an era."

Fields was an early advocate of the "back-end deal," which saw top stars forgo their upfront paychecks in return for a percentage of a film's ticket sales. He persuaded Natalie Wood, for instance, to take 10% of the first-dollar gross -- the practice of giving A-listers first dibs on a studio's box office take -- on Paul Mazursky's 1969 comedy "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice." Fields would later say that Wood earned more money as a result of that deal than she did on any other movie.

Those were the days when such stars as McQueen, Newman, Robert Redford and Kirk Douglas pulled down $1 million a movie, Fields told The Times in a rare 1995 interview. He could only marvel at how stars' salaries had rocketed by the mid-1990s.

"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," Fields said.

Still, he refused to blame agents for the soaring cost of talent.

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

Fields wistfully wished he had possessed the power that Ovitz wielded when negotiating with studio executives and noted that dealing with such old moguls as Jack Warner required more finesse on the part of agents.

"I could never beat up Jack Warner," Fields recalled. "I had to sell him and con him."

When two of Fields' big clients, McQueen and Newman, starred in 1974's "The Towering Inferno," it was Fields who came up with the idea of how to give both actors equal billing on the credits, Cowan said.

Fields suggested putting one actor's name on the left side of the screen and the other's name, slightly higher, on the right. The practice is still in use today, Cowan noted.

Born in Ferndale, N.Y., on July 12, 1923, Fields was the son of a Catskill Mountains resort owner.

After a stint in the Coast Guard, he began his show business career working for a small, independent New York booking agent named Abby Greschler, whom he helped sign some huge acts, including Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

In 1946, Fields was wooed away by MCA, the big Hollywood talent agency. He was a top agent there until 1960, when he left to form his own management firm.

"I had such a feeling for MCA emotionally," Fields said in 1995. He recalled "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."

Before long, his client list include some of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

The First Artists venture lasted five years. "I think it would be in existence today," he said in a 1986 interview, "if I'd left CMA and run it myself. But I didn't. As it is, all the artists did well out of it. But Hoffman and McQueen did not get along with its last management, and so it did not last."

In 1980, Fields moved over to the studio side of the business, running production at MGM and UA.

He spent two years as chief operating officer at MGM Film Co., then from 1982 to 1984 he was president of worldwide production at MGM/UA Entertainment.

After leaving MGM/UA, Fields vowed never to take a studio position again.

"It's a thankless job, from almost every point of view," he said in 1986. "And it wasn't a happy time at MGM when I was there. We were not a hot studio and it was hard to get good material. But I have great affection for the studio."

As an independent producer chiefly based at Paramount, Fields was involved with "Lipstick," "Victory," "Wholly Moses," "Handle With Care," "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and "American Gigolo." He also was executive producer of TV's "The Montel Williams Show."

Perhaps his most praised film was "Glory," which told the story of black soldiers who valiantly served alongside Union troops during the Civil War.

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