He passed away last night at approximately 9:15 PM at home surrounded by his family. (Left, Freddie and Corina Fields.) I hear a service is planned for Friday at 2:00 PM in Westwood. During his career he founded and operated one of the world’s largest talent agencies, Creative Management Associates (CMA), which today is known as International Creative Management (ICM). Fields’ roster of talent at CMA included Robert Redford, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Robert DeNiro, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Jacqueline Bisset, Liza Minnelli, Steve McQueen, and such renowned directors as Arthur Penn, Steven Spielberg, Bob Fosse, Mel Brooks, Sidney Pollack, George Lucas, Francis Coppola and George Roy Hill. Fields also conceived and created the First Artists Production Company with clients Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier and Dustin Hoffman, forming the first independent cooperative film company in some fifty years. Towering Inferno, Dog Day Afternoon, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Papillon, The Sting, American Graffiti, Star Wars, and The Godfather are just a few of the dozens of major motion pictures which were packaged under Fields’ guidance during his years with CMA.
In 1981, Fields was named President of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Film Co.’s motion picture production division. After serving for a year in that capacity for MGM/UA Entertainment Co., he became President and Chief Executive Officer of MGM Film Co.
Fields with his CMA partner David Begelman were throwbacks to the early days of Hollywood — a more romantic, more exciting, and, frankly, more fun time when agents were showmen who lived for the glitz and the glamour of their business lives. They loved the prestige, the parties, the lunch tables at Ma Maison. They had more in common with Charles Feldman and Leland Hayward than Lew Wasserman or Abe Lastfogel. They were also the recipients of the first historical upheaval in the agency business with the breakup of MCA. Its dissolution left a huge vacuum: seemingly overnight, the agency business was fragment, an alphabet soup of boutiques all watching and circling one another to see who would make the big move. CMA was seen as hip, sexy, fun — the agency as ongoing party — perfectly suited for the new aesthetic and ethos of the ‘60s.
But Fields and Begelman were quintessential dealmakers, the best of the day. Their lucrative movie packages and imaginative backend deals pushed the envelope of how talent was compensated in Hollywood. The knew how to use power, and more importantly, were not afraid to use it. They got a thrill out of bullying studio heads and forcing them to accept rich deals for their stars which in the past would have been considered unthinkable. It was no accident that Fields’ name for packaging was “pre-producing.” The reason they were drawn to studios in the end was because they decided being an agent did not give them enough status; for the true stature in the Industry back then still came with being a buyer not a seller.
Like many agents, Freddie Fields gained entry into show business through family connections. His father, Jack Fields, ran a hotel in the Catskills called the Queen Mountain House and was the first in the summer resort business to see the advantage of booking entertainment for his guests. Soon, the Catskills became a regular stop on the variety tour circuit, and Fields was pulling in headliners like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. When Jack Fields died at the beginning of the Depression in 1929, his five-year-old son, Freddie, his four other sons and his wife were left to fend for themselves. Fields’ mother worked two job to keep the family going, moving from town to town. Fields worked odd jobs, even once a bellhop in Miami, before entering the service. But even then he knew he was a great salesman. “I was always selling, even when I was a kid,” Fields once told me. “When I was in the Navy, the guys in the military band put a group together, a dance band, and I was booking them.” By the time he left the service, Fields had caught the showbiz bug. He asked his older brother, well-known band leader Shep Fields, to let him play trombone. He wasn’t very good. So one day, Shep asked his agent, Abbie Greshler, if he could get Freddie off his back. As part of Fields’ training, Greshler handed his two stars Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis over to his protege. Then Fields moved to talent agency behemoth MCA with Martin and Lewis in tow.
In 1960, he left MCA to start Freddie Fields Associates. Within two months, Fields’ best friend and fellow MCA agent David Begelman, joined him. Together they renamed the company Creative Management Associates, or CMA. That the name came from rearranging the MCA initials was no coincidence. From the first they decided they wanted an elite management business that would represent only the ten top people who were the best in their field. Fields had left with Phil Silvers, star of The Phil Silvers Show, which had captured the Emmy for best comedy series three years in a row. He also had second wife, the celebrated actress Polly Bergen (Bergen was his second wife; Fields would have four in all). Based in New York, the two managers quickly signed Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Jack Paar and Lauren Bacall. But Fields and Begelman never had any intention of abandoning the agency business. The two men followed closely the Justice Department’s ongoing anti-trust investigation of MCA, which was heating up in 1960, the year they went out on their own, and would continue for the next two years. When MCA was forced out of the agency business, CMA jumped in.
Their specialty seemed to be “difficult” clients, like Judy Garland. Later, when they signed Barbra Streisand, Peter Sellers and Steve McQueen, “we were accused of being masochists,” Fields joked. Fields moved west to open new CMA offices on Sunset Boulevard, while Begelman stayed behind in New York. Fields became a center of Hollywood’s active social scene in a new wave of clubs like the Whiskey A-Go-Go just down the street from CMA’s headquarters. It wasn’t uncommon in the corridors of the agency’s headquarters to smell the acrid odor of marijuana wafting from inside the offices. Fields turned his Mediterranean-style Beverly Hills mansion into a second headquarters, holding morning staff meetings with his agents around the pool. The two-story house, filled with antiques and sporting a projection room and “audition” facility, became one of the town’s hot spots.
Fields savored the killer CMA reputation. When Fields was trying to sign actor James Coburn, hot after Our Man Flint in 1966, Fields showed up at Coburn’s home for a breakfast meeting, took off his jacket, and strapped conspicuously to a shoulder holster was a Colt .45. After a stunned second, Coburn roared with laughter, then signed with Fields on the spot.
The year Begelman moved west in 1968, with protegee Sue Mengers in tow, the two CMA partners also made their first business move to expand their “Cartier” agency, entering into negotiations to buy the General Artist Corporation, which had powerhouse agents Marty Baum and Sam Cohn. Soon after, the partners took CMA public on the American Stock Exchange. Not only were security analysts, who didn’t understand what a Hollywood agent was anyway, lukewarm to the offering, but the reaction of the financial press was devastating. By 1970, CMA’s stranglehold on the talent was so firm Fields and Begelman could indulge their every dealmaking whim. The more unorthodox the deal, the better. Fields and Begelman were masters of structuring contracts that called for incredibly complex and creative forms of compensation for their stars, including percentages on movies’ profits and even rollbacks, an almost unheard-of concept at the time. The duo popularized perks that would later become common demands for A-list talent. The two did and undid deals with such relish, coworkers suspected aloud that they actually broke up a deal on purpose just to see whether they could put it back together again. Fields became the king of movie packaging. But, along with the dealmaking, there was a darker side to Fields and Begelman that made even their most loyal clients keep one wary eye open when doing business with the pair. The two agents had a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth, even to each other. Fields told me of the time an unexpected royalties check for Judy Garland showed up on his desk one day and he told his secretary: “The question is not whether I tell Judy, but whether I tell David.”
But agenting had begun to lose its luster for both men. Fields always had nothing but contempt for the image of agents as, he put it himself, “guys with big cigars who pinch girls’ fannies and carry actors’ golf clubs.” They felt ten percent was fine, but the real glory — and the real money — was in producing. Though he denied he was envious, Fields had been prickly ever since his rival Ted Ashley left agenting to head Warner Bros in 1969. So Fields’ brainchild was First Artists Production Company, the first star cooperative since Charlie Chaplin’s United Artists fifty years earlier. Then Begelman announced he was leaving to join Columbia Studios. Fields with left behind to fret over petulant stars, skyrocketing expenses and a sinking bottom line. For Fields, the fun went out of the business. There were no more practical jokes. No more good cop, bad cop. There was only a seemingly ever-increasing, ever-suffocating overhead. And a growing sense that the time had come to move on. On November 4, 1974, the Hollywood trades confirmed what had been rumored for years and hotly speculated in recent weeks: that Marvin Josephson’s International Famous Agency was merging with CMA.
In fact, Fields had been negotiating with Josephson on and off for two years. In the 18 months since Begelman’s departure, the CMA chieftain had become increasingly disillusioned. He wanted out. On January 1, 1975, CMA was officially folded into IFA. A new, publicly held superagency was formed. Josephson claimed the title of chairman and named his new company International Creative Management, an amalgamation of both agencies’ names, which was quickly shortened to ICM. The deal called for Josephson to pay $6.10 a share, bringing the total price-tag for CMA close to $6 million. It was a sweet deal for Fields. The agent controlled 147,341 shares of CMA stock; at Josephson’s price of $6.10 a share, he landed an immediate windfall of nearly $900,000. In addition, the CMA founder was named president of ICM, working on a 33-month management contract and drawing a $250,000-a-year salary. But the crafty Fields had negotiated an even more important provision for himself: an escape clause. After just six months, Fields could take his money and run. Josephson, however, never really considered the consequences of an ICM without Fields. In fact, he bought a shell of what CMA had been. Fields had outsmarted him.